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September 15, 2005

Satellite city on the Mississippi

At the NAACP, we've been brainstorming about ways to solve the Katrina housing crisis. FEMA has purchased thousands of trailers for temporary housing, but it's not clear where to put them all.

Temporary housing is vital to recovery. One of the NAACP's top priorities is to get people out of camps/shelters and into temporary family housing. Jobs for evacuees are another critical dimension of recovery. We need to get people back to work in their own city.

Bob floated the idea of setting up trailers on barges in the Mississippi river. These barges would provide temporary housing for evacuees working on the reconstruction.

Is this feasible? I'm asking for input from anyone with expertise in the relevant areas: temporary housing, urban planning, nautical issues, engineering, etc.

I'm trying to find out whether this project would be feasible from a construction and engineering standpoint. What kinds of barges could we use? What kinds of trailers would be appropriate? How many trailers can fit on a barge? If you've got thoughts on the matter, please send me an email or leave a comment below.


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Bob floated the idea of setting up trailers on barges in the Mississippi river. These barges would provide temporary housing for evacuees working on the reconstruction.

Is this feasible?

I'm no expert, but I am a dad, and I really wouldn't want to be living on a barge that my kids could fall off of and into the water. Sounds dangerous, unless there were very secure barriers all around.

One other thing: would it make sense to scatter trailers across many locations? Say four to ten in every high school parking lot across Louisiana/east Texas? Low density, high visibility. Maybe this is crazy, but maybe communities would be more inclined to help out families if their numbers were relatively manageable?

More grist for the mill:

What kind of holding tanks would be required to prevent further pollution?
What security would these provide in the case of future hurricanes?
Would each one need it's own generators? Or would shore power be available?
Wouldn't the current of the Mississippi be a problem?
Would Bayous work better?

I recently read that in Houston there were cruise boats in harbor which were slated to be used to house evacuees, and that they were having trouble finding people willing to take up the offer. People were more inclined to stay in the crowded astrodome than switch to a considerably more comfortable living situation if it meant being surrounded by water.

Here is perhaps an odd thought. What about repopulating midwestern farming towns which have lost their populations over the last several years? Iowa was courting immigrants not too long ago because of population loss. We have existing infrastructures with low populations scatter across the country, could we see some of these communities given incentive to open their communities to the displaced? it takes people far from Louisiana, but it might work as a piece of the puzzle.

This is just a question (not a snarky statement in the form of a question): how would sanitation and fresh water work in trailers on barges (I'm thinking that could drive up the cost)?

antstop, I'd guess that the big reason for that depopulation is lack of jobs.

Creative, but maybe not a good place if a flood or even a lesser storm came along? I don't know.

"antstop, I'd guess that the big reason for that depopulation is lack of jobs."

Agreed. I think that ideally, the people would be housed as close to NO as possible, so that the rebuilding would provide jobs to those displaced. This would defray some of the economic impact. Remember, there are not just construction and clean-up jobs, there is a lot of ancillary work as well - transportation of supplies, food service for workers, accounting, bookkeeping, insurance claims monitoring etc. The more these jobs are done by locals, the less direct assistance they will need.

Trailers on barges was done during the exxon valdez oil spill. Don't know the gulf I'd call Tidewater Marine

I think the fact that so much building was done on reclaimed swampland implies that if there were a good place to put structures, it probably has them already.

I imagine that there is some "middle-ground" in the city. Some areas that have been hit hard enough so that all the buildings need to be condemned, but the clean up won't be too bad, and much of the infrastructure (sewer lines, gas lines etc) survived. Condemn the buildings. Buy them under eminent domain (possibly with a generous buy-back provision in the sale contract). Tear them down and set up trailer communities.

Offer these homes first to those displaced persons with the necessary skills to rehabilitate the rest of the city. Then, as critical masses of people increase, offer homes to law enforcement, medical and educational personel. The latter are indeed necessary. I think if you don't have a provision to deal with children, you are cutting your recruiting pool down too much.

I wouldn't be surprised if this was unworkable. It might be too much work to clear such land. If the need is too pressing, the logistics might not be solvable.

I worked on the barges and tugs at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska, and THEY managed to have watermakers, sweage storage, cook barges and all it took to facilitate quite a large lot of people to run the tugs up there. I don't think it would be a large leap to put up kid-proof railings, etc, especially THERE in the heart of gulf ship-building expertise.

Just my .02 and thanks to Majikthise for her great blog!

I was in the Navy and my ship went into drydock in Avondale, across the river from New Orleans, back about 15 years ago. While the ship was there, we stayed in barracks built on barges. So, it isn't that unusual or impossible of an idea.

Humans have lived in "lake communities" for millenia, so it's obviously doable. The problem is, this is a river known for being volatile. It might be better to use Lake Ponchartrain instead.

"antstop, I'd guess that the big reason for that depopulation is lack of jobs."

I know that and I know that getting a good portion of the population back and working on rebuilding the community is important, but there is a significant portion of the population who has no desire to return. It would take govenment incentives to make it possible for people to move into depopulated places, but if there is all this government funding availible for rebuilding, perhaps directing some of it into incentives for shrinking communities to open their doors and developing business plans to incorporate this new growth could help alliviate the pressure of all this migration. And to a certain extent, there are still jobs in these farming towns, just tendency for the young folks to want to move to the city instead of staying behind and farming.

And besides farming, perhaps there could be incintive for job creation in industries which don't require being near a major metropolitan area. We have companies moving phone banks to India, but what about encouraging some to repopulated midwestern farming towns? Market the idea to them as good public relations move and use some of the reconstruction money for grants for updating the necessary infrastructure in towns to make it a more attractive option. I'm not saying drop a bunch of folks out in the cornfields and say "nice to see ya, folks. Good luck!" There would have to be a plan, but with a plan there is this existing space where we could give people a chance to start over and rebuild communities.

This wouldn't work for everyone, but there could be some feasible opportunities here.

again, just brainstorming here.

Unfortunately, the FEMA's plan appears to be building high density trailer parks that would house evacuees exclusively. Looking at the history of such projects, one would expect this "temporary" solution to become permanent, creating a Dixie version of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. I think that anything that could be done to find people an alternative would be a good thing.

Without knowing too much about the situation on the ground, my instinct is to go with a version of Pinson's and Njorl's suggestions: use eminent domain to buy plots of land. Build small trailer parks on some plots, and start building/rehabilitating permanent homes on other plots.

Any private efforts in this area would entail setting up a foundation to arrange financing and grants, and arrange for contractors to supervise construction. In Tucson, AZ, there is a foundation that does similar work there called Primavera Builders, and if you want to do something in the area of low income housing, it's worth checking their program out:

Of course, Habitat for Humanity will also be active in the region, and if you're not going to help set up a local foundation, the best use of your resources might be to find out how you can help them:

Whatever happens, the key is going to be jobs. There are going to be a lot of people returning to NOLA, and many will not have jobs waiting for them. All of the good options for housing them depend on the majority finding work. Using the Primavera option, many could be put to work building the dwellings that they will eventually inhabit.

In terms of grand strategy, though, I have to think that the key will be a massive public works program in the region.

Bush wants to give homestead grants, and Antstomp has proposed extending these to other areas. Why not extend them nationwide? HUD already provides money to support home purchase by lower income people, so why not put more into that program and loosen restrictions for NOLA evacuees? It's not nice to say, but the fact is that every time an evacuee settles in Houston, or Iowa, or here in Oregon, it makes the problem of NOLA resettlement easier to solve.

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