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FEMA trailers for displaced residents could help maintain Joplin population

Monday, May 30, 2011 | 8:56 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — Some of the people left homeless by the Joplin tornado could be placed in rental homes nearly an hour's drive away The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday it will consider bringing in trailers, as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, if enough homes are not available.

FEMA's first option for housing the thousands of displaced is to find them existing rental housing within a 55-mile radius of Joplin. There isn't much housing left in the city of nearly 50,000 that was left badly damaged by the May 22 tornado, spokeswoman Susie Stonner told The Associated Press.

Nearly a third of the city was damaged by the violent storm that killed more than 130 people. Twenty-nine people remained unaccounted for Monday.

Stonner said that despite the distance, putting people in permanent housing is preferable to trailers — especially in an area prone to tornadoes and severe weather.

"Wouldn't you prefer to be in a stable building over a mobile home?" she asked. Stonner also noted that getting things like water, sewer lines and developing pads for trailers would take substantial time.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said the goal is to keep people as close to home as possible but that "based on the circumstances we'll have to respond accordingly." The city has not said how many people were left homeless by the twister, but Rohr said 4,500 to 5,000 residents have registered with FEMA.

Temporary housing will be made available for up to 18 months. Some people along the Gulf Coast still live in FEMA trailers nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina.

Another FEMA spokesman, Bob Josephson, said the agency will consider bringing trailers to Joplin if enough existing housing isn't available. He said every effort will be made to find existing rental units closest to Joplin and that many residents may simply choose to find their own housing options.

People who lived in the 8,000 structures that were smashed in the storm have scattered to the homes of friends and relatives or camped out in emergency shelters in the city.

Some residents may leave town — New Orleans lost nearly one-third of its population after Katrina.

Penny Musgraves is happy — and almost surprised — to be alive. But for Musgraves, whose low-income housing townhouse was ripped away above her head as she protected her cowering 6-year-old daughter, the joy of surviving is beginning to give way to confusion and anxiety about the future.

"I'm kind of scared," said the 45-year-old mother, who is unemployed and currently living with her daughter at the Red Cross shelter set up at Missouri Southern State University. "There isn't much low-income housing. I can't rent a place. I don't know what I'm going to do."

While many of the survivors had insurance, it could be months, if not years, before they can rebuild. Removing the millions of tons of debris and remaking the city's destroyed infrastructure will likely continue well into the summer, if not longer, though Rohr said the first phase of debris removal will begin later this week.

Rebuilding homes can't start until that work is finished. For low-income residents, the Housing Authority of Joplin provides some housing. But it was not known how many of the homeless, if any, it can accommodate.

Recent history suggests many people won't be able to wait for the answers to emerge or for the rebuilding to be completed. The current population could drop substantially.

New Orleans lost 29 percent of its population after Hurricane Katrina as residents left and settled elsewhere. Greensburg, Kan., which was leveled by a tornado in 2007, lost about half its population even though the town was rebuilt. It dropped from 1,574 before the tornado to 777 in 2010.

At the Red Cross shelter in Joplin, 150 people seemed grateful for the cot, warm food and donations of clothing. Many were trying to figure out where to go next.

Ask 64-year-old William Whittenback where his home is, and he has a quick answer. "Plum off the map," the retiree said.

Whittenback and his 67-year-old wife, Lorna, narrowly made it through the tornado. The roof of the home they've lived in for 15 years collapsed, leaving Lorna with a massive gash on her forehead and her cheeks black and blue. Every house in their neighborhood was a total loss.

The couple has insurance, and Whittenback said he'll rebuild in the same spot. With no family in the area, though, he's wondering where they can live until then.

The weather brought Gerry Guitierrez to Joplin. Now it's forcing him to leave.

"What brought me here? Snow," said Guitierrez, a 29-year-old massage therapist who arrived in Missouri just last month from San Benito, Texas. "I love the cold weather and the snow. I wanted to stay. Now I've got to come up with the money to go back."

Guitierrez lived in an apartment with a friend. But since his friend's name, not his, was on the lease, he doubts that FEMA will provide for him since he wasn't a registered resident of Joplin.

"How does it feel being homeless? Honestly, horrible," he said. "It's just so bad."


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