March 9, 2006

ABC News Nightline: Life in a Post-Katrina Disaster Camp

A Camp with No Jobs, No Assistance and No Future 

March 16, 2006 — On a bleak stretch of gravelly pasture not far from the airport in Baton Rouge, La., 573 white aluminum trailers stand in rows. The dreary site, home to 3,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, boasts a utopian name: Renaissance Village.

But life is anything but utopian for those inside the Village, the first and largest trailer park founded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The absence of land-line phones, hospital facilities and a police presence serve as constant reminders that their status here is temporary.

“I ask every day, where could I go?” said 28-year-old Kiey-anna Magee. “We all wondering the same thing, wishing to get out of this place before it gets any worse than it is.”

Federal law entitles disaster victims to temporary housing for up to 18 months, and after a series of devastating hurricanes in Florida, this period was extended an additional six months. But FEMA officials say they don’t want people at Renaissance Village to get too comfortable.

When the camp was first established, FEMA provided residents propane and three hot meals a day — free of charge. But the propane plug has been pulled, the food service is ending April 6, and free buses to the local Wal-Mart are only funded until June.

Catch-22s Within Catch-22s

Magee, like many at the site, is from New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward. She worked in day care before Katrina, but she is unemployed now; she spends much of her day watching television in her trailer with her three young children. The oldest, 5-year-old Sapphire, is one of the hundreds of children who doesn’t go to school. Magee said no one explained to her how to register.

Magee says she is trapped in the trailer, out of options. She has no job, no money and no car, and yet she does not qualify for government assistance.

“We called section 8 to see if they could help — they say you have to be homeless,” Magee said. “I am homeless. This is not mine.”

Yet many say that the occupants of Renaissance Village are not so bad off. As the largest of the temporary housing sites, the Village attracts a lot of attention. T-Mobile has donated cell phones, a charity called the Virtue Foundation brought $60,000 worth of computers, and Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation donated three trailers to serve as school and play space for the children.

But O’Donnell’s trailers, which arrived in December, have remained locked outside the gates. FEMA won’t let them in, citing liability concerns.

ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden reported this story for “World News Tonight” and “Nightline.”