Initial Mission

The mission of the Katrina Cottage initiative has been refined and expanded since Hurricane Katrina. On the Saturday after the hurricane, Andrés Duany and I determined that the mission of the cottages should be to create “FEMA trailers with dignity,” and that they should embodied these qualities:

1. Design quality must be excellent.

2. Buildings must be appropriate to the regional conditions, culture, and climate.

3. Buildings must be deliverable by all major delivery methods, including manufactured houses, modular houses, kit houses, panelized houses, and site-built houses.

Longevity Mission

Once we learned that FEMA planned to spend $70,000 per FEMA trailer to manufacture, deliver, commission, maintain, de-commission, haul away, and dispose them 18 months later, it became obvious that  we could deliver cottages that were worthy of staying for a hundred years or more for the same amount of money. The actual expenditures, it was later revealed, were closer to $100,000 per unit. For a period of 18 months, that’s $5,555 per month, which would more than cover the mortgage payment on a half-million dollar house. Yet victims were living in FEMA trailers, not half-million dollar houses. Such is the inefficiency of FEMA.

One other thing… during the Mississippi Renewal Forum, which was arguably the largest planning event in human history just six weeks after the storm, my primary role was interacting with FEMA. At one point while trying to persuade them to allow the cottages to remain for decades or centuries instead of pulling them out after 18 months, the chief FEMA rep said “you’d have to get an act of Congress to do that!” And so we did. A half-billion dollars were allocated to the cottages, mostly to Mississippi with some to Louisiana and less to Alabama, but even though the act of Congress provided for the cottages to be used long-term, FEMA came in and removed them 18 months later anyway!

Foothold Mission

A few months into the Katrina disaster, it became clear that a second “echo disaster” was brewing. Insurance companies were overwhelmed, and were taking a very long time responding to claims. During this time, people had no home except the FEMA trailer, and it had an 18-month expiration date from FEMA. Most of them also had no jobs, as most businesses on the Gulf Coast had been wiped out. With no income, they had no way of making their mortgage payments, which continued to come due unabated, making foreclosure certain for most. It was clear that thousands would lose everything, and that when the insurance companies finally paid the claims, the recipients of the properties would be the banks, not the homeowners. This sorry state of affairs heightened the third mission of the cottages: helping people get a foothold back onto their property again. It also launched the “Katrina Commercial” unit designs, intended to help businesses get going again in the smallest possible footprint.

~ Steve Mouzon

© New Urban Guild 2017