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September 02, 2005

Housing Needs of Katrina Victims

Earlier this morning, MSNBC Washington DC Bureau Chief Brock Meeks interviewed me regarding temporary and interim housing planning in response to catastrophic events. After the interview, I read Hugh Hewitt’s post, “What is to be done?

Hugh offers several great ideas, including the following observation and suggestion (forgive the choppiness of the quote, but I think it conveys his idea well):

We don't neeed American refugee camps…the president…needs to send a few dozen of its best colonels (with) authority to determine…level of need…decide a plan for them…then assign a trooper to carry it out...
While I’m not sure that the military is the best choice for determining the need level of evacuees and I doubt that completely avoiding “refugee camps” is possible, Hugh is on the right track.

(Full Disclosure: I’ve provided group site planning consulting services to FEMA in the past. What is written in this post should not be construed as the opinion of FEMA or my employer. These are my thoughts and opinions as a professional city planner with experience in catastrophic housing planning).

Draining New Orleans could take a month. Removing the mud and debris could take another couple of weeks, during which time inspection and “red tagging” of buildings for demolition could begin. As such, officials may not have a solid estimate of the scope of work required to rebuild devastated areas for six to eight weeks.

Each evacuee should be assigned a FEMA case manager. Evacuees and those residing in shelters should be interviewed within a week to determine their individual immediate and near-term needs. The following information should be collected:

• Full medical history and needs
• Number of people in family/group and a list of loved ones still unaccounted for
• Home address and status of property/possessions (if known)
• Place of employment
• Relatives or friends in unaffected parts of the country that might be able to house them for a time

The data gathered by these case managers should be loaded into a Geographic Information System (GIS) relational database that will facilitate determination needs by evacuee household or group. Information on evacuees could be joined with other data on damaged areas and complemented with data collected by field inspectors as it comes in. Satellite imagery should provide a “first cut” at identifying people who are likely to require “temporary” accommodations versus those who will need “interim” housing. By “temporary” I mean accommodations for folks who may be able to move back into their homes within 60-90 days. “Interim” housing refers to accommodations for up to 3 years.

Within a day of the interview, a report could be generated for each case, perhaps with images of the evacuee’s property and surrounding area, that will help case managers and evacuees decide how best to meet the immediate housing needs.

FEMA should already have people surveying rental housing markets in surrounding unaffected areas and placing deposits vacant apartment and home units. As units are held for victims, these data should be loaded into the GIS and an inventory compiled. The database should also include information on citizens who have expressed a willingness to share their home for some period.

Part of the housing determination should be based on a survey of evacuee skills. The ideal situation would be to involve evacuees, most of whom are likely unemployed (due to events), in the reconstruction efforts. That would require placing these people nearby affected communities, ideally their own. Again, a task easily handled with the GIS.

As noted by Hugh, we don’t need "refugee camps," although I’m not sure it is possible to rule out temporary encampments for some of the displaced evacuees. Based on the initial interviews and evaluation by FEMA case managers, victims can be placed in one of the following categories.

No Temporary or Interim Housing Need: Suitable long-term housing can be found within a couple of weeks

• Those whose homes sustained minimal damage and can return
• Those with the means and willingness to relocate out of the region permanently

Temporary Housing Need: Cannot move back into homes or onto lots for 60-90 days

• Those who can stay with relatives or friends
• Those who can relocate to a mobile home on their existing property while their homes are rebuilt
• For all others – assignment to a FEMA temporary encampment.

Interim Housing Need: Communities cannot be rebuilt within 90 days

• Those who can stay with relatives or friends
• Those who can be assigned vacant rental apartments or homes within the vicinity of the devastated areas.
• For all others – assignment to a FEMA temporary encampment until group sites can be constructed for interim accommodations.

Hugh’s suggestion may work well for evacuees who fall into most of the above categories. For “all others,” FEMA will likely develop temporary and interim group sites, which no doubt will be labeled by the media “refugee camps.” Temporary housing encampments are FEMA’s bread and butter. I’m sure that there are many very experienced people at FEMA who are likely gearing up to meet this need as we speak. Remember, these will be temporary and the accommodations will be tolerable as they will be air conditioned, offer a semblance of privacy, and evacuees will have access to clean water, food, and showers. Think about the temporary facilities constructed in Iraq for our soldiers and you get the picture. Do our soldiers live in "refugee camps"?

The interim group site planning will be the real challenge.

Let’s assume that we have upwards of 1,000,000 people who have been evacuated or are homeless. Now assume that 15% are not able to relocate permanently, live with relatives or friends, or find housing in the existing vacant housing stock. We’re talking about constructing interim housing for approximately 150,000 very quickly.

To accomplish a disaster housing mission for 150,000 people, sites must be identified, acquired, cleared, graded, and developed as soon as feasible. That means that land will likely be condemned, an action that may require special legislation from Congress (any comment from eminent domain and NEPA experts?).

Manufactured structures will be required. Lots of them. Assume an average household size of roughly 2.8 (should be refined for regional considerations) and the mission would require over 50,000 mobile homes!

In addition to mobile homes, these mini-communities will require services and facilities. How much land would this require? Based on some research that I did last summer, I calculated that a neighborhood of over 2,200 units, complete with an elementary school (average is one elementary school per 7,000 people) and modest commercial and office/administrative space, would require approximately 400 acres of land. A community of roughly 50,000 people, which could be comprised of 8 neighborhoods (about the size required to support a new high school), would require over 3,500 acres. A single settlement for 150,000 people would require more than 11,000 acres.

But why would we create a single mini-city to meet the need for 150,000 evacuees? In my opinion, that isn’t a viable or even the best option. What would 150,000 people do in a temporary mini-city developed on 11,000 acres of raw land in some rural area? Think of the social implications and morale of people living in such a community. It just doesn’t seem to make sense in this instance.

Instead of creating a single group site, FEMA surveyors should consider appending smaller group sites to existing communities nearby the devastated areas. These smaller, but more numerous group sites could feasibly tie into existing utility backbone systems and residents (no longer evacuees) could gradually become part of social fabric of their host communities. To house roughly 150,000 people, FEMA planners would only need to locate approximately 20-40 group sites for 2,000-8,000 people each to disperse the local impacts as well as disperse a potential labor pool for local reconstruction efforts throughout the gulf coast. Also, 20-40 group sites are very manageable from an organizational and construction stand point.

The Biggest Challenge

How many mobile homes and structures are currently available? How much treated lumber will be required? Aggregate for concrete? Glass for windows? Roofing materials? How much labor will be required to rebuild the devastated areas? How many engineers and inspectors will be required to review and approve all the redevelopment applications? The government cannot simply allow a “free for all” by developers. Projects must be reviewed. The reconstruction must be regulated to ensure the health, safety and welfare of future occupants. Review time will be a function of available human capital with particular expertise (engineers and planning technicians in particular). I suspect that solving these logistical and human capital problems will be the biggest challenge to reconstruction efforts.

Update: See my latest post for additional thoughts on housing Katrina evacuees, which includes a link to the MSNBC article mentioned above.

Posted by Rick at September 2, 2005 03:12 PM

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Housing Needs of Katrina Victims:

» Stones Cry Out's Brady Has Plan for Evacuees from Tapscott's Copy Desk
Briefly, Brady says it is possible to assign every New Orleans evacuee a FEMA case manager and create a comprehensive computer file that becomes the base point of recovery efforts for that evacuee. [Read More]

Tracked on September 2, 2005 03:58 PM

» Today from SCSU Scholars
The Eclectic Econoclast wonders if agitation for rent control could be coming in Katrina's wake. ... [Read More]

Tracked on September 3, 2005 10:28 PM

» "What is to be done?" from VodkaPundit
A city planner writes about what's needed to fix New Orleans.... [Read More]

Tracked on September 6, 2005 01:48 AM


Please advise as to how I can offer our home for a fmaily of Katrina. We could handle a family of 4 easily.

Posted by: Pat Long at September 4, 2005 08:41 PM

Pat, bless you. Register with

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 4, 2005 10:51 PM

I think that FEMA and the state governments are taking a somewhat different track: dispersal. Here in Texas, they estimate that we have 250,000 evacuees. Instead of trying to get them together into a large clump, they're trying to disperse them as much as possible.

From the larger shelters, like the Astrodome or Austin's Convention Center, they're moving them to smaller shelters. Many of these are in churches or family homes. Other victims are being transported to small shelters in other states.

Lots of the evacuees told me (I worked in a shelter over the weekend), that they didn't want to go back. They may change their minds, but a lot of them seem to have taken this as a sign, or maybe an opportunity, to start over elsewhere. One man said to me: "I like this place. It looks like it's DRY here. From now on, I'm going to live somewhere that's DRY."

Posted by: Rob at September 6, 2005 09:57 AM

Rob, true! Reality is always different than a plan. Again, I refer you back to the different types of evacuees. The total number of evacuees that will need "interim" housing (up to 3 years) is what I'm dealing with. For the time being, displaced households are being dispersed. Also, many are finding homes and apartments all over the region, which they can remain in potentially for a few years.

Some will not return. Others need to return to help rebuild and get the economy going again. Interim housing will be required. In fact, I heard that FEMA rejected Mississippi's request that it release 20,000 mobile homes it has in storage to meet interim housing needs. The fight is over paper work, but it will be released eventually. They have many many thousands more of these units. Some will be placed on existing lots while homes are rebuilt. Others will require new sites or towns.

Bottom line - FEMA and many others are learning a great deal through this process.

See my latest post for additional thoughts on housing Katrina evacuees.

Posted by: Rick at September 6, 2005 02:50 PM

I'm sure you know city planning, and I have no doubt but that your heart is in the right place, but you have done little more than waste a lot of bandwidth and effort in needless pixelization of your thoughts.

I worked for FEMA from 1996 to 2002 in the Disaster Housing Program and Individuals and Households Program, and was both a Supervisor Case Reviewer and a Supervisor Field Inspector by the time I left, so I know the program within the agency under the roof and in the field. Subsequent to that, I was an independent contractor for both FEMA and HUD from 2002 to 2004, also as a Supervisor Field Inspector, so I know the nuts and bolts from the contractor's side as well.

Furthermore, I worked for FEMA while at the agency in New Orleans as part of a Quality Control Reinspection team in 2002, and for HUD in New Orleans as a code inspector in 2003, so I know N.O. SPECIFICALLY like the back of my hand: I have been inside of literally THOUSANDS of residences there and have inspected them IN DETAIL.

You are trying to reinvent the wheel with your suggestiuon that individual applicants be assigned a speciffic caseworker. Personally, I can't think of anything that could POSSIBLY be more inefficient. FEMA uses NEMIS (The National Emergency Management Information System). Apps enter it when they phone FEMA for assistance and fill out the application by phone. The categorical questions you ask are ALL answered at that point.

Then, if an inspection is required, the inspection is downloaded to the contractor inspector in the field who is assigned to that speciffic neighborhood in that particular zip code. Often, the very same day they apply, the inspector has the inspection in his handheld Windows tablet computer, and if he can reach the applicant, he can schedule the appointment within mere hours of recieving it. Sometimes FEMA has the inspection back the same day, but almost always within 72 hours.

THE VERY FIRST CASEWORKER who opens that Work Packet in NEMIS when it returns from the field can then make an initial eligibility decision. Waiting for a speciffic caseworker in one of the three National Processing Service Centers (Denton, TX; Mt. Weather VA; Hyattsville, MD) would be an unmitigated disaster (Sorry for the seeming pun). Once a Supervisor Reviewer (Like I was) approves the decision, assistance can be forwarded to the treasury, and a check mailed.

Best case scenario for an app who calls at 7:00AM, is inspected by noon, and reviewed by 3:00PM is that the assistance check can be mailed same-day (Obviously, that isn't happening in a disaster of this magnitude). Your idea would totally throw a wrench in the works.

Now, on to the speciffics of Orleans Parish. Like I said, I HAVE INSPECTED THOUSANDS OF HOMES THERE FOR BOTH FEMA AND HUD. The overwhelmingly vast percentage of them are old and suffer from massive amounts of cumulative deferred maintenance that has piled up over decades. It simply will not be economically feasable to repair most of them. They could barely pass the relatively lax standards for HUD, for crying out loud. They will have to be razed and rebuilt from scratch. Period.

Also, many of the homes in the poor Wards were HUD subsidized and were inhabited by low income or chronically unemployed individuals "benefiting" from a variety of welfare programs: Who in their right mind would want to recreate that environment, replete with all the crime and misery I witnessed there? Recreate housing within New Orleans for the THOUSANDS of residences of the projects? I'm sorry, nobody, but nobody is going to want to do that if they have a brain.

I have no idea what NOLA will emerge as, but I can "gay-ron-tee" (To use a little local accent) it will look and feel nothing like it was before. Obviously, there are good and bad aspects to that eventuality, but an eventuality it is.

Bottom line - I hope you learned a little about FEMA through this post. This disaster happened before Katrina's eye wall ever came ashore, and the blame lies at the feet of the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana for not 1) pre-staging supplies at the congregation points (Dome C-Center) and 2) Not forward-deploying city and school buses there to move the victims when it became obvious they would not be able to return home.

Rebuilding N.O. has to be carefully considered if it is to be done right (And, it MUST be done in some way at some location to preserve the ports for the Mississippi River, which is the economic circulatory system of the Untied States), but I'm guessing politics will screw it up again. Call me a pessimist if you want, but I'd rather be pleasantly surprised than dissapointed.


Posted by: Hucbald at September 7, 2005 01:04 AM

Hucbald, thanks for the info and education on how FEMA processes "applicants." That part of my post was directly in response to Hugh Hewitt's suggestion that US Military Colonel's be given the task of finding short-term housing for the displaced so as to avoid "refugee centers." I'm glad to hear that there are more efficient procedures in place.

Regarding your statements about NOLA, I fully agree. Rebuilding NOLA will take a a very long time, and yes, it will look completely different. All the more reason why there will be a substantial need for interim housing.

You said you worked as a contractor for FEMA from 2002-2004. You may or may not know of the initiative FEMA started in 2002 for large-scale catastrophic housing planning. As a Planner II in TAC III, I wrote about 40% of a catastrophic response housing handbook for FEMA.

FEMA told us specifically that the old way of doing things was no longer acceptable and they encouraged us to think outside the box. Basically, they told us they wanted a way to construct mini-cities, from scratch, that could be operational within 60-90 days of a disaster. New cities for 150,000 people. Based on my interaction with FEMA, they had never thought on this scale before. Then, with drafts of our handbooks at their side, they "war-gamed" a Cat V hurricane strike on NOLA. They assumed the entire city would be sunk. The idea was that, although the entire city would be homeless, a good chunk of residents would find "interim" housing (up to 3 years while NOLA rebuilds) on their own or in the existing housing stock. But, there would be some number of residents who will require interim housing relief (i.e., implementation of some of my plans).

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 7, 2005 09:31 AM

The social condition of some of the refugees will no doubt cause second thoughts in some of the host communities. I've already read of increases in crimes in adjacent cities due to the riff raff.

What Americans loved about NOLA was a chance to visit and wallow in its decrepitude. Yet, most of us wouldn't want to live there, with its crime, corruption, and squalor.

So what are we to do with the social undesirables? The permanent welfare class, the petty criminals, the public housing residents, the politicians? Create a trailer park for 120,000?

I'm not sure that's progress.

Posted by: Whitehall at September 7, 2005 11:41 AM

Whitehall, the "trailor park" would not be permanent and there wouldn't be a single park. Or, at least I hope not. That was the point of my post. But trailor parks there will be. No other way around it I'm afraid. The question is, and no one knows the answer to this yet: how many trailors and parks will be needed?

The plans I developed included space for a range of social activities so that residents didn't feel like "refugees" and could resume as normal a life as possible. Won't be perfect, but it will be progress - from where they are now...

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 7, 2005 01:50 PM

There's already housing available for them over a 3-state area and it would be preferable to placing them in camps. Many have said they're never moving back so FEMA should simply cut them a check for the value of their house (if any) and lost possessions to start over and wish them well. Really doesn't require much more than that - medical assistance and help finding jobs and that's about it.

Posted by: Orion at September 7, 2005 11:03 PM

I think it's a very positive American thing that a lot of the displaced citizens are planning on a new start in new states. This hurricane may have broken a cycle of poverty for thousands of people. New Orleans can rebuild and be better. I see great opportunities for renewal and rebirth from this disaster. Only in America.

Posted by: xixi at September 8, 2005 01:17 AM

Orion, thanks for the comments. Certainly MANY will relocate permanently. If you read my post, you will see that I include that possibility. If you follow the link to my subsequent post on the subject you will see that I suspect a vast majority of displaced persons will relocate on their own elsewhere. However, this will not be everyone and the devastated areas will certainly need housing for a very large labor pool over the next few years. "Camps" will not be what will be created (perhaps in the near-term, but not in the interim). "Interim housing" in rapidly developed mobilehome parks will likely be required.

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 8, 2005 09:01 AM

We have an open room for a single mother and child in Orange County, CA. It can be used as interim housing or if they are interested in relocating, we would like to help them get a place of their own within a few months. We will also help with finding a job, transportation, day care/ schooling. Thank You.

Posted by: Cari White at September 13, 2005 11:14 PM


Posted by: T & P BUILDING at September 15, 2005 06:47 PM

we have been building insulated concrete homes for several years in earthquake country has anyone in hurricane zones thought of building with this technology? in a massive flood surge the siding and interior finishes could be replaced without any mold concerns and it would stand against any wind and storm surge. the costs for this type of structure is slightly (10-15%) higher than typical frame construction.

Posted by: daniel paris at September 22, 2005 11:57 AM

I own a trailer park and have several vacancies in it and would like to have someone from FEMA contact me regarding the lease of the lots. A representative was in the Winnsboro, La. area and left his contact number, but this was misplaced and I am attempting to contact the rep.The local officials have not been able to help as no one has a contact name or number in the Winnsboro area. Please E-Mail me at this E-Mail address if you can provide assistance in this matter. My E-Mail is or

Posted by: frank cowart at September 24, 2005 01:11 AM

I have a Motor home I would like to sell.

Posted by: Jerry Huffstutler at October 11, 2005 07:14 AM

I have land I would like to offer for FEMA's use.
Does anyone have a contact number? If so please email me at
Thank you for your help.

Posted by: Wendy Duckworth at October 14, 2005 06:50 AM

I am among the category "all others" in regard to Katrina and subsequent help. I understand the urgency of getting evacuees out of hotel rooms. I was offered that type of assistance by the Red Cross and turned it down. I was fortunate enough to have someone to stay with. I did receive the initial $2,000 emergency assistance check and the subsequent $2,358 housing assistance check. However, that is all gone now. I have been paying rent and buying food, had to buy a few clothes since I left New Orleans with 5 pairs of shorts, a few shirts, and a pair of sandals. I have been looking for a job the entire time, have registered with unemployment, done everything I could think of. Lack of real information is one of the biggest problems all displaced people are facing. I keep reading that people are eligible for up to $26,000 but I don't see any of it coming our way. What is the deal with FEMA and the federal government? Do they really think we have the resources to start over in a new place with no resources? No furniture, no clothing, no nothing?! I don't want to sound like a whiner, but all of us need the maximum amount of help we can get. And forcing us to find a landlord who will agree to a 3 month lease, etc. etc. is not realistic. We should be respected for having the ability to plan and control our own lives, with just a little help. I don't think I can assume a landlord is a trustworthy recipient of FEMA funds for my housing! What world do these people live in?

Posted by: khandjo at December 2, 2005 01:54 PM

Am a freelance writer working on an essay regarding Katrina's diaspora offering a future for those displaced peoples who decide not o go back to New Orleans. Would appreciate insights ffrom any who care to tell their story. Thanks.

Posted by: Ken Perinchief at December 19, 2005 05:18 PM