As Gulf rebuilds, many feel stuck

The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. -- Nathan Gates lies awake most nights, trying to hold onto the dreams of his past: the woman he would have married, the small home they would have shared and the contracting business he hoped to get off the ground.

Lately, those dreams have been slipping away, eclipsed by the stark reality of life in a cramped, 288-square-foot trailer at a small encampment in the salt marshes of the Mississippi coast.

Surrounded by a wildlife refuge that's swarming with gnats, where alligators bask in the sun a hundred yards from his room, this tiny trailer has become a critical lifeline. In the year and a half since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to life as he knew it, Gates, 31, has lost his fiancee, taken in his disabled mother and struggled to keep his fledgling construction business afloat. His nights are often sleepless as he thinks of ways to build on this fragile foundation.

"I think about what to do," he said. "And about this storm. Where it's put me, and what I can do to get back in the right spot."

Gates' story underscores the challenges ahead for those who stayed to pick up the pieces. Like tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he has been plagued by a distressing combination of bad luck, unemployment, housing shortages and inflated prices that make it almost impossible to move on.

The federal disaster agency is still housing Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in nearly 90,000 trailers. More than 19,000 of the mobile homes are located in 860 encampments across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Gates' road to the trailer park began at daybreak Aug. 29, 2005. Well before the worst of the storm, crashing waves began to shake his two-story waterfront apartment building in Ocean Springs, a small city near Biloxi.

Fearing that the complex would collapse and trap him and a friend with whom he had intended to ride out the hurricane, Gates led the way as they ventured out into the storm, carrying their pets and a few personal items in plastic bags.

As Gates and his friend reached a house on high ground that was taking people in, he saw his building collapse. Soon after, police found two bodies among the ruins nearby.

"That kind of made me realize how we could have drowned," he said. "It would have been easy for us to die."

Gates lost nearly everything, including his car, in the storm. But he and his fiancee regrouped and for the next two months stayed in Florida -- first with her grandmother, then at a hotel with assistance from FEMA.

Before Katrina, Gates had worked as an electrician at a shipyard in Pascagoula, about 15 miles from Ocean Springs. He could have gone back to that job, but the urgent demand for housing after the storm convinced him that the time was ripe to try his hand as a home remodeler.

"It's a plan I've had for a long time, and I just figured that you can't let stuff [get] you down," he said. He bought a used pickup truck and started taking on odd jobs, including putting up drywall and installing floors.

"You can't give up on stuff. It hasn't been easy, but we're doing OK, little by little."

But while the region's sudden housing shortage and skyrocketing rental prices -- twice as high as before the storm -- meant business opportunity, he and his fiancee faced the same problem as everyone else trying to find a place to live. In January 2006, they had little choice but to move into a 36-foot FEMA trailer in Ocean Springs.

Inside the 8-foot-wide trailer, a double bed fills the tiny bedroom behind its curtained doorway. The bathroom is next to a space with a couch that can double as a bunk. Meals frequently consist of fast food.

Gates tries to spend as little time as possible in the trailer, but anxiety keeps him from pastimes he once enjoyed. These days, the green canoe he avidly paddled into the marshes to fish sits outside his trailer, collecting rain. Cable television "keeps me sane," he says.

The 30 trailers in his encampment at Gulf Islands National Seashore are parked in spaces usually filled with motor homes of vacationers, with ample room for a car or two, picnic table dining rooms and storage of belongings. While the gnats can be merciless at times, living in a nature preserve hasn't been all bad. Gates loves the quiet, and gets along well with neighbors and even the alligators, one of which he has named George.

Things started to sour a few months ago when his mother, who is disabled, had to move into the trailer. Gates declined to discuss her disability or why he had to take her in, but that event, with many other post-Katrina strains, caused his 11-year relationship with his fiancee to disintegrate. His fiancee moved out a few weeks later.

Three people made for tight quarters in the trailer, but "you've got to look after your mom," he said.

His company, Floor Up Construction, has been slow to build business, largely because so many residents are still fighting insurers for payments or zoning boards over the dimensions of their new homes, says Gates. Through word of mouth, he gets two to four jobs a month, working mostly out of his truck. Gates has no office and communicates with customers by cell phone, often traveling to Pascagoula for equipment and supplies, and for basics, such as printing his invoices.

But his soft heart contributes to his income problems. Gates says he does far too much work for free or at reduced rates. With all the sorrow around him, he finds it hard to charge more than he would have before the storm. And in many cases, he can't bear to charge anything at all.

With business struggling, the trailer has started to feel like a prison, even though Gates knows it's about all that is keeping him afloat. Soon he might have to pick up and move again -- for the fourth time in 18 months. He met recently with a FEMA employee who told him that he and his mother would have to move because their section of the national seashore was reopening to the public. Gates refused to sign the form notifying him that eviction was imminent, but several neighbors have left already.

Eugene Brezany, a spokesman for FEMA in Mississippi, said the encampment will close by May 31. Twenty percent of its occupants have relocated, he said.

Gates said he and his mother are likely to be moved to a nearby encampment where hundreds of units are lined up beside each other, scarcely 4 feet apart. While visiting friends there, he recently saw people dealing drugs in the open and lounging outside drunk for much of the day, he said. He worries that items he can't fit into the trailer -- fishing poles, extra pairs of shoes -- would be stolen if he leaves them outside, as he does now.

Connie M. Moran, the mayor of Ocean Springs, said several private and federally sponsored apartment and condominium developments are in the works, but that hasn't helped ease the desperation of many renters who are still in trailers.

Congress approved funding last year for "Katrina cottages" -- modest homes built to withstand hurricanes that occupants might eventually be allowed to buy -- to replace the FEMA trailers. Moran said she hopes the program, which is to be unveiled this month, will solve the problem.

But Moran worries that some will stay in the trailers as long as government officials don't find a better solution. When FEMA officials called her to extend the trailers' stay in the civic center parking lot, she refused.

"I said, 'No, we want to work with you to get these people out of the travel trailers and into homes and apartments,'" Moran said.

"There's no doubt about it, people are restless. Safe, affordable housing is the most critical issue for the recovery of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast."

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