State Officials Ask FEMA for Cottages (Updated)

Second Katrina Cottage Earns Praise from Louisianans

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Update: For the latest news and views on the Katrina cottages, see these recent articles:

  • Sun-Herald (Biloxi, Miss.) (Apr 5) reports that the Senate Appropriations Committee has added a $1 billion pilot program to fund cottages to HR 4939, a supplemental appropriations bill.
  • HR 4939 bill status from Library of Congress
  • USA Today "Senate may OK money for Katrina cottages" (Apr 1)
  • Christian Science Monitor "After the deluge, creativity in the Gulf: The Monitor's View" (Apr 3)
  • Slate.com "Cute beats cutting-edge when it comes to temporary shelters" (Mar 31)
  • NPR All Things Considered "Law Stands in the Way of Sturdy Katrina Cottages" (Mar 30)

The tiny, coastal-style emergency cottage that has captivated building industry observers and residents of hurricane-damaged Mississippi got a Louisiana sister this week, just as Governor Kathleen Blanco and other top Louisiana officials joined Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in urging FEMA to order the sturdier, less expensive alternative to the FEMA trailer.

Interest in the Katrina Cottage has grown alongside concerns about the large numbers of displaced Gulf Coast residents who will spend the upcoming storm season in unstable FEMA trailers, and longer periods in what may become trailer ghettoes.

As Greg Thomas reported this weekend in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, officials at the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), St. Bernard Parish and the Mississippi governor’s office are all lobbying FEMA to erect “Katrina Cottages” instead of the temporary trailers, which now number 90,000 between the two states. Gov. Barbour took his plea for cottages to the U.S. Senate Appropriations committee on March 7 (see testimony below).* And with a second model cottage debuting in St. Bernard Parish, Governor Blanco has joined Governor Barbour in favoring “such cottages as an alternative to the FEMA trailer,” according to an LRA fact-sheet on the cottage.

This week, the 400-square-foot Katrina Cottage – designed by New York City architect Marianne Cusato for the seven-day October Mississippi Renewal Forum organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism – has been joined by a second, 750 square-foot version with second-floor loft. A team of designers contributed to the design – including CNU members Andres Duany, Susan Henderson, Eric Moser, Steve Mouzon, Matt Lambert, and Diane Dorney -- with Louisiana AIA president and fellow CNU member Steve Oubre taking the lead in seeing the project through to construction. Built with panelized walls by Home Front, Inc. of Englewood, FL, the Louisiana Katrina was unveiled Wednesday in a the parking lot of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Chamette where Andres Duany and a team of new urbanist professionals led a well-received charrette for St. Bernard Parish last week. Duany, a principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami and co-founder of CNU, has directed two other planning charrettes in communities along the Louisiana Coast and may cooperate with the LRA on future charrettes.

The Katrina Cottage 2 in Chalmette, Louisiana. From the Baton Rouge Advocate. Photo by Liz Condo.

The second Katrina Cottage received an equally warm reception from its Louisiana audience this week. “Katrina Cottage Gets Rave Reviews,” proclaimed Thursday’s Baton Rouge Advocate. Gary Delise, a resident of Arabi in St. Bernard Parish whose family lost their house and are now living in a FEMA trailer said the cottage “beats a trailer by a long shot.” He told Advocate reporter Joe Gyan, ““I think it would be a nice replacement. Not only a nice replacement, but a start to another house. If I could rebuild, that’s what I would do,” he said. “I’d like to have the house demolished and put this on it.”

The Katrina Cottage concept has generated much attention since it was originally previewed at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando in January. The cottages pose some clear advantages over FEMA trailers:

• The homes are built to hurricane-resistance standards and can weather future storms. With their cement-plank siding and sealed wall panels, they can be placed in a flood plain, if necessary. “It can get wet,” Andres Duany told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “It has no sheetrock.”

• FEMA is spending about $75,000 to deliver and install each of the 23- to 28-foot trailers for storm victims, while a Katrina Cottage can be set up for under $60,000, according to manufacturers such as Home Front, Cavalier Homes, and Southern Energy Homes, Inc.

• Construction of the cottages would be fast, since the cottages can be either stick-built or built of panelized walls manufactured in an assembly-line fashion. Unlike FEMA trailers, Katrina Cottages are emergency structures with permanent value, real homes that can eventually be expanded if owners choose to do so.

The original Katrina Cottage has been on display in Ocean Springs, Mississippi since February.

FEMA trailers have been provided for only about 37 percent of the estimated 90,000 displaced families in need of housing in Louisiana, as production bottlenecks and arguments over trailer sites have stalled the construction and delivery process, according to the Washington Post. Duany emphasized that since Katrina destroyed so many homes ? as many as 300,000 in the New Orleans area ? it upset the region’s housing supply and demand balance, pressing trailers into long-term service for which the cottages are much better suited.

While the Katrina Cottages strike many as a natural way to address the housing problems, a stumbling block has been the interpretation of the 1974 Stafford Act, which ostensibly restricts FEMA to offering temporary housing assistance. In practice, FEMA’s actions under the Stafford Act tend to defy basic categories such as temporary and permanent. Thirteen years after Hurrican Andrew, Florida residents moved out of the last “temporary” FEMA mobile homes this month. And the Stafford Act contains lengthy descriptions of the terms under which FEMA trailers are transferred to residents permanently. Officials in the coastal states see Katrina cottages as emergency housing that plays a similar transitional role as FEMA trailers – which wind up being fixtures of the landscape for years, even decades. Only the cottages bring long-term value, instead of blight. The rejection of the “affordable, hurricane-safe alternative” to the trailers is a limitation “not ..of legislation, but.. of imagination,” Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu told the Times Picayune.

Mississippi Development Authority director Leland Speed is also championing the trailers. “We're still in FEMA trailers (seven months later). Can you imagine, 37,000 travel trailers with over 100,000 people in them (and hurricane season coming). They depreciate, get old. FEMA trailers are junk," Speed said in the Times-Picayune.

The Louisiana cottage will be on display for six months, after which it will be donated to St. Bernard Parish. Read more about the Louisiana cottage .

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*“As I have testified to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the federal government needs more options in future hurricanes. Modular housing can be constructed quickly and efficiently, and ultimately costs the taxpayer less in construction and maintenance costs. More importantly, modular housing designed like the "Katrina Cottages" developed in the Mississippi Renewal Forum provides a much better living environment for disaster victims. Occupants of a "Katrina Cottage" can use the cottage as a base from which to build their new permanent home." – Governor Haley Barbour before the U.S. Senate Appropriations committee on March 7, 2006.