Dozens of mobile homes and millions of dollars in emergency aid have been rolling into California to help victims of the Butte and Valley fires since President Barack Obama declared the fire zones federal disaster areas last month.
About 60 of the mobile homes, called “temporary housing units” by federal authorities, are clustered on the tarmac at McClellan Park, a former Air Force base north of Sacramento, awaiting distribution to those who can’t find rental housing within a reasonable distance of their destroyed homes in Lake and Calaveras counties.
If you’ve lost everything, this is a bridge to get to where you need to get back to.
Victor Inge, a FEMA spokesman stationed in Sacramento
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials ask that they not be called “trailers” following the controversy over the travel trailers that housed Hurricane Katrina victims for years in Louisiana. Those units released toxic levels of formaldehyde gas and resulted in a $43 million legal settlement for residents who experienced respiratory ailments and other medical problems.
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The newer units are different, officials insist. Though still not fancy, they are higher quality, more comfortable and approved as safe by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“These may not win a beauty contest, but they’re highly functional,” said Jim Poole, a FEMA employee in charge of staging the housing units at McClellan.
He recently returned from helping typhoon victims in Guam and worked at the World Trade Center in the days after Sept. 11. Poole wears a lanyard that holds his FEMA identification along with pins from 21 states and one territory he’s visited for his job.
The housing units, clad in white vinyl siding, range from about 8 feet to 14 feet wide and have one to three bedrooms. They have simple kitchens and bathrooms, and come with a sofa, a kitchen table and beds. Hot showers, flush toilets and electric lights make them better than emergency shelters or the tents some residents are sleeping in amid the rubble of their ruined homes.
“If you’ve lost everything, this is a bridge to get to where you need to get back to,” said Victor Inge, a FEMA spokesman now stationed in Sacramento. He and other FEMA officials prefer the term disaster “survivors” to “victims.”
There are a lot of people in that category.
The wind-whipped Valley fire, which started Sept. 12 in Lake County and became the third most destructive wildfire in state history, wiped out 1,280 homes and burned 76,000 acres before it was brought under control two weeks later.
The Butte fire in Calaveras County also made the top-10 list of the state’s most catastrophic fires. It burned 475 houses and 71,000 acres after breaking out in neighboring Amador County on Sept. 9.
Both fires are now 100 percent contained, but the work of repairing the lives of the thousands of residents displaced by the fires has just started.
FEMA has had its mobile assistance units – essentially high-tech recreational vehicles – on-site in communities such as Middletown in Lake County for the past few weeks to help those harmed by the fires. More than 3,000 residents – 2,186 from Lake County and 871 from Calaveras County – have sought FEMA help, and $6.6 million in federal aid has been allotted for those harmed by the Butte and Valley fires, Inge said.
Federal aid can go to individuals or to local governments. Small towns can quickly spend twice their annual budget in a disaster and can get reimbursed by the federal government. Families can receive money for home rebuilding, site cleanup and vehicle replacement.
Caseworkers are assigned to each family and a plan of aid is worked out. For many, that means finding suitable rental housing near their former homes. The rural areas of the Butte and Valley fires make that a challenge, Inge said.
The mobile homes are mainly for those who are uninsured because homeowners insurance usually provides for replacement housing during rebuilding.
“This takes care of uninsured loss,” Inge said.
For some, FEMA will put one of the mobile homes on a family’s homesite while they rebuild, or in an existing trailer park or in a park created by FEMA, he said.
The mobile homes are meant to be temporary and must be re-approved every 60 days for those who occupy them. Some Katrina survivors lived in their travel trailers for years after the hurricane decimated New Orleans in 2005.
The mobile homes are stored in yards in Selma, Ala., and Cumberland, Md., and were individually trucked to California by specially equipped big rigs piloted by drivers such as Mike Miltroka, a resident of Elkhart, Ind., who’s been transporting FEMA trailers and mobile homes for 38 years.
The 2,600-mile journey from the eastern U.S. takes 2 1/2 days, he said. Requirements that drivers rest a certain period of each day are waived by federal emergency rules, officials said. Transponders on each unit let workers know where every mobile home is and how long it will take to get to where it’s needed.
Miltroka said he’s watched the FEMA units change dramatically in size and quality over the years.
“They come a long way. If a unit can go 2,600 miles down a highway and still look like this,” he said, indicating a mobile home parked in a former Air Force hangar, “it’s amazing.”