John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FEMA disbands in Laurel St. park

My wife called today to tell me that the FEMA trailer park that had been located across the street from our house in New Orleans is vacant and most of the trailers gone.

Construction began there two years ago when big machinery moved in, and covered with some sort of gravel/slag the grass that had once covered a baseball field. The construction machinery was accompanied by private security people who reminded us of members of a SWAT team. SWAT wannabees, we decided. We tried to talk with the construction people to find out who would live there, when they would come, how long they would be there. They didn’t know, and the site superintendent soon issued an order to his workers not to talk with us gawkers, which did little to reassure us.

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When occupants began arriving in late February, 2006, they were mostly municipal workers who had originally been housed in cruise ships docked downtown. Police, fire, sewer and water board workers. The park was fenced and guarded with its one exit right across from our front porch. Access was tightly controlled. No one entered without checking with the guards.

The first guards after the FEMA park was occupied also reminded us of SWAT wannabees, but during the 20 or so months of its occupancy, the security contract must have passed through a number of hands and the appearance of quality among their personnel ebbed and flowed. However, they were always friendly and eager to reciprocate acknowledgement from neighbors who lived outside the fence of their concern.

Some of the park’s residents were there for almost the entire 20 or so months of its occupany. There was the sewer and water board guy who always parked his truck outside the fence and always waved. There was the policeman who walked his most unpoliceman-looking dog every afternoon.

All gone now, along with the guards and most of the trailers. We can now see the houses across the park on Annunciation Street, my wife said. One neighbor said that most of those who had to leave were at near-completion of repairs of flood damage, so they had places to go. Many being evicted from FEMA trailers have not been able to find suitable homes in which to relocate. Some evicted from FEMA trailers would never have left if they had not been evicted.

We were apprehensive when those trailers first appeared — not knowing who would live there but ashamed that we felt that way about people who had lost their homes to the post-Katrina flood.

But our neighborhood after Katrina with the guarded, trailer-filled park across the street became a quieter, gentler place than it was before.

We are apprehensive now that they are leaving — not knowing whether the Wisner Playground park will be reclaimed and not sure what to expect if it is. Or is not. The guards are gone now.

This marks the beginning of a new chapter in the “new normal” that is everything post-Katrina in New Orleans. I’ll keep you posted.