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Thousands Of Harvey Flood Victims Will Likely Need Long-Term Temporary Housing

Sep 1, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 5:39 pm
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One of the most difficult parts of disaster recovery can be finding housing. Tens of thousands of Texans left homes that were destroyed or too damaged to return to any time soon. NPR's Pam Fessler reports that government officials are trying to figure out where all these people will live in the months and even years ahead.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Retiree Boyd Coble is one evacuee who's eager to find out what happens next. He's been staying at a makeshift shelter run by a Houston mosque after sheriff's deputies insisted he leave his flooded home Tuesday morning. Coble was reluctant to go.

BOYD COBLE: I didn't want to leave my home behind. I have lived there for 30 years, never had water in the house. I want to be home.

FESSLER: But the prospects for that are bleak. When Coble left, his floors had already buckled. He said it was almost like they were floating. Former FEMA official Brad Gair estimates that tens of thousands of flood victims like Coble won't be going home anytime soon. Gair oversaw recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. As happy as he was this week to see so many people rescued, he also had another reaction.

BRAD GAIR: Most people are looking at it and saying, thank God, we've saved another family. I look at it and I say, oh, my God, there's another family that we're going to have to figure out how to find housing for and one more family that's starting off on a journey or more likely an ordeal that will go on for many years to come.

FESSLER: He says housing options are limited. It's estimated that at least a hundred thousand homes have been damaged by the floods, and that number is expected to rise.

GAIR: Nobody has the capacity to just all of a sudden build back tens of thousands of homes overnight.

FESSLER: So government officials are looking for alternatives. More than 45,000 people are still in emergency shelters, but plenty more are staying with family and friends and could soon need somewhere else more permanent to go. FEMA administrator Brock Long says the government's trying to move people as quickly as it can into hotels and rental units. But it's not clear how much space is available.

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BROCK LONG: The next goal is save houses. You know, as the water starts to recede, we've got to go in. And this is where the volunteers need to be organized - is helping people muck out their houses. Get the wet carpet. Get the wet drywall out. Make simple repairs.

FESSLER: Which is what Gair says they did after Superstorm Sandy, something called rapid repairs. This allows residents to return home relatively fast and stay there while more permanent, long-term repairs are being made. What no one wants to see is a re-emergence of fleets of travel trailers like those used to house Hurricane Katrina victims in some cases for years. Long says in this disaster, manufactured housing and mobile homes will be a last resort.

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LONG: That is a long process. We don't just start dragging in manufactured homes and travel trailers right off the bat. They're not going to be on your property tomorrow by any means.

FESSLER: Still, he says, the government's starting to look into purchasing temporary homes. And the Texas Manufactured Housing Association is gearing up to help. Executive director D.J. Pendleton says his group's members are taking inventory right now to see how many units are available and how quickly they can ramp up production if needed.

D J PENDLETON: We're not exactly sure what we could be asked for, but we're trying to get organized. And with that, we're talking with our factories to figure out, you know, timelines, you know, supply chain, all of those types of things that would factor in.

FESSLER: But buying, setting up and maintaining such temporary homes can be costly. Gair says as much as a quarter of a million dollars per unit. Still, the government might have little choice as people go home and assess the damage. FEMA administrator Long says he envisions one of the largest recovery housing missions the nation has ever seen. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.