JOPLIN, Mo. - Some of the people left homeless by the Joplin tornado could be placed in rental homes nearly an hour's drive away, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that it will consider bringing in trailers, as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, if enough homes are not available.
FEMA's first option for housing the thousands of displaced is to find them existing rental housing within a 55-mile radius of Joplin, because there isn't much housing left in the city of nearly 50,000 residents that was left badly damaged by the May 22 tornado, spokeswoman Susie Stonner told the Associated Press. Nearly a third of the city was damaged by the violent storm that left killed more than 130 people. Twenty-nine people remained unaccounted for yesterday.
Stonner said that despite the distance, putting people in permanent housing is preferable to trailers - especially in an area prone to tornadoes and severe weather.
"Wouldn't you prefer to be in a stable building over a mobile home?" she asked. Stonner also noted that getting things like water and sewer lines and developing pads for trailers would take substantial time.
City Administrator Mark Rohr said that the goal is to keep people as close to home as possible but that "based on the circumstances, we'll have to respond accordingly." The city has not said how many people were left homeless by the twister, but Rohr said 4,500 to 5,000 residents have registered with FEMA.
Penny Musgraves is happy - and almost surprised - to be alive. But for Musgraves, whose low-income-housing townhouse was ripped away above her head as she protected her cowering 6-year-old daughter, the joy of surviving is beginning to give way to confusion and anxiety about the future.
"I'm kind of scared," said the 45-year-old mother, who is unemployed and living with her daughter at the Red Cross shelter set up at Missouri Southern State University. "There isn't much low-income housing. I can't rent a place. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Although many of the survivors had insurance, it could be months, if not years, before they can rebuild. Removing the millions of tons of debris and remaking the city's destroyed infrastructure will likely take until well into the summer if not longer, though Rohr said the first phase of debris removal begins later this week.
Rebuilding homes can't start until that work is finished. For low-income residents, the Housing Authority of Joplin provides some housing. But it was not known how many, if any, of the homeless it can accommodate.
Recent history suggests that many people won't be able to wait for the answers to emerge or for the rebuilding to be completed. The current population could drop substantially.
New Orleans lost 29 percent of its population after Katrina as residents left.
Greensburg, Kan., which was leveled by a tornado in 2007, lost about half its population even though the town was rebuilt. It dropped from 1,574 before the tornado to 777 in 2010.