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Editorial: Innovative ideas are needed quickly for homeless families

People effected by Superstorm Sandy wait in line

People effected by Superstorm Sandy wait in line outside a FEMA tent in Staten Island, New York. (Nov. 4, 2012) Credit: AP

For those who have lost their homes to Sandy, finding a place to stay has not been easy. Hotels are jammed. Rentals are scarce. So, even with rent help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, many hundreds of displaced families have few places to go. Nor, of course, is a hotel the best solution. If they have to stay in a room too far from their damaged homes, it will be tougher for their children to stay in the schools they attended before Sandy.

So trailers look like one possible answer.

But the minute you say trailers and FEMA in the same sentence, painful images of Hurricane Katrina are bound to arise. In the months after that 2005 storm devastated the City of New Orleans, FEMA trailers, meant to house families who lost their homes, became their own political storm. Trailers were available, but even months after the hurricane, the question of where to set up trailer parks got bogged down in local politics. Later, many who used FEMA-provided trailers complained of formaldehyde fumes emanating from the trailers. That led to a class-action lawsuit and a deal between the contractors who provided them and the displaced homeowners who lived in them.

This time, FEMA is not pushing to procure and supply trailers as part of the Sandy response. But the agency does appear willing to reimburse families for the cost of privately obtained trailers, and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone have been negotiating with FEMA.

What's not needed is a series of new trailer parks. Rather, families should be able to place a trailer on their own property, if there's room, so they can monitor the progress of repairs, send their children to their usual schools, and use FEMA money to pay for the trailer. The counties can help by making sure that the vendors are reputable and the trailers they supply are safe. Let's not have a repeat of the post-Katrina formaldehyde fiasco.

For families whose homes are damaged, but not so badly that they can't be lived in, with a little work, FEMA announced Wednesday a new pilot program called STEP (Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power). This program will send contractors to homes to repair such things as electric meters, blown-out doors or windows, and broken plumbing. That will enable families to stay in their homes until they can arrange for the more extensive repairs needed later. It allows children to continue their education in their home district.

FEMA is calling the STEP program a first in the nation. Our region can use that sort of innovative thinking, because long before Sandy came calling, Nassau and Suffolk have suffered from a dearth of rental housing. That means a very low vacancy rate, which makes it's almost impossible for families to rent until they can get back on their feet.

For families with severely damaged homes, though, trailers as temporary residences could be a useful option. There will be issues, such as meeting or waiving local land-use regulations (or waiving them, to speed things up), finding enough trailers to meet the need, and hooking up to electricity and sewage disposal. But the two county executives are correct to work toward using them as a stopgap. The permanent housing supply is inadequate, and the need is great.