In Mississippi, Donnell Landtroop’s state-supplied cottage has mold on the walls and dried mud on the floor — the foul remnants of Hurricane Gustav, the second hurricane in three years to leave her family homeless.
The Labor Day storm ruined dozens of cottages like hers in southern Mississippi that were supposed to be a safer, sturdier alternative to government-issued trailers for families displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency condemned more than 230 of the cottages, leaving Landtroop and other coastal Mississippi residents scrambling to find shelter in a storm-scarred region where affordable housing is scarce.
“It’s just been one big mess after the next,” said Landtroop, whose home in Bay St. Louis was demolished by Katrina’s storm surge three years ago.
Landtroop lived on her property in a FEMA trailer before the state replaced it with a cottage in November 2007. Gustav’s storm surge, which approached 10 feet in the area, left at least a foot of water behind. Two days later, Landtroop returned and found a notice on the front door that her cottage is uninhabitable.
Landtroop, a 35-year-old dog groomer and single mother of three, has moved her family six times since Gustav forced them to evacuate. They stayed in a Red Cross shelter until it closed last week. Now they’re living with relatives.
Roughly 2,800 families whose homes were ruined by Katrina in 2005 have been living in the state-built cottages. They were billed as a safer replacement for trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which were believed to be exposing occupants to dangerous levels of formaldehyde, which can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is exploring housing alternatives for people whose cottages were ruined by Gustav, but help for many residents can’t come soon enough.
“They’re still living in these damaged cottages, with nowhere else to go,” said Rhonda Rhodes, director of a housing resource center in Hancock County, where most of the condemned cottages are located.
Rhodes is trying to help Landtroop and more than a dozen other cottage dwellers find temporary shelter, but the housing center has only a small pot of grant money to divvy up.
“It’s not a lot of money, so it’s not going to go very far,” she cautioned.
On the front doors of condemned cottages, the city posted encouraging notes for storm-weary residents.
“You did it before and you can do it again this time,” Mayor Eddie Favre wrote. “The residents of Bay St. Louis are resilient people and your city government does care about you.”
After Katrina, Mississippi used a $281 million federal grant to build hundreds of cottages with up to three bedrooms and 840 square feet of space. Louisiana, meanwhile, hasn’t built a single cottage yet with its share of the federal funding.
Mississippi’s cottages, with blueprints inspired by Gulf Coast architecture, come with front porches and kitchen appliances and are designed to withstand winds of up to 150 mph.
The cottages are meant to be temporary, but Mississippi says they can be converted into permanent dwellings. The state obtained a federal waiver that allowed them to be temporarily set up in flood zones so residents could live on their own properties.
“We knew that if there was a storm surge, they would flood,” said Lea Crager-Stokes, the agency’s deputy director. She said it was the agency’s legal responsibility to condemn cottages that insurance adjusters deemed uninhabitable after Gustav.
“There is a huge mold risk, and we don’t want them to live there,” she said.
Crager-Stokes said the state will foot the bill for some displaced families to stay in hotels or apartments until they can find more stable homes. The state also plans to offer residents new cottages, but only if they’re willing to relocate to a commercial mobile home park or a plot of land where the cottage could qualify as permanent housing.
Christine Perez, 48, of Bay St. Louis, said that option isn’t practical for her 72-year-old mother, Lolita Morales, whose cottage took on two feet of water from Gustav. Morales has been staying with Perez and another daughter in Biloxi.
“I would rather her be with us or my sister so we can keep an eye on her,” said Perez, whose home next to the cottage also flooded. “Why put something else here? If we get another hurricane, it’s just going to flood again.”
Landtroop said her family’s Gustav evacuation cost her the money she planned to use for a deposit on an apartment. While she was grateful to get a cottage free of charge, she is desperate for a helping hand to get through the next few weeks.
“After Katrina, everywhere you turned there was help,” she said. “Now there is no help.”
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