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DISASTER IN NEW ORLEANS -
-

FEMA muzzling La. trailer-park residents

Posted in the database on Friday, July 21st, 2006 @ 17:00:40 MST (2093 views)
from First Amendment Center  

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Residents of trailer parks set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house hurricane victims in Louisiana aren't allowed to talk to the press without an official escort, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate reported.

In one instance, a security guard ordered an Advocate reporter out of a trailer during an interview in Morgan City. Similar FEMA rules were enforced in Davant, in Plaquemines Parish.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rodi wouldn't say whether the security guards' actions complied with FEMA policy, saying the matter was being reviewed. But she confirmed that FEMA does not allow the news media to speak alone to residents in their trailers.

"If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview," Rodi told the newspaper for its July 15 report. "That's just a policy."

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said FEMA's refusal to allow trailer-park residents to invite news media into their homes unescorted was unconstitutional.

Morgan City Mayor Timothy Matte told The Advocate that he was surprised residents were being barred from talking to reporters.

"I would think anyone who lives there would be allowed to have any visitor they wanted," he said.

FEMA leases the land for the trailer park from the city, Matte said. "It's public property. There's no question about that. You would think the people would have the same freedom there as everyone else has," he told the newspaper.

Hundreds of trailers at FEMA parks sit empty and unused in Louisiana, according to The Advocate.

Officials in Morgan City estimate that FEMA has spent about $7.5 million to build the trailer park but that only about 15 of the 198 trailers are being used.

"We all wonder why no one lives there," Matte said.

FEMA officials refuse to say how much was spent to build the park or why 183 of the trailers are vacant.

"We're not going to talk about cost," Rodi told the newspaper.

As in Morgan City, the 334-trailer FEMA park in Davant in Plaquemines Parish is greatly underused.

The north side of the park is empty, and 92 families live in the south side, Rodi said, adding that the empty trailers would be removed.

"We put them there at the parish's request," she said. "Now we've found that the need is not as great there or that people don't want to live there."

The trailers are going to be put on private property or in private parks in the parish as needed, Rodi said. She refused to disclose how much the park cost to build.

Meanwhile, Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle blamed FEMA, in part, for the slow return of residents to the parish.

Rousselle said FEMA knows where many evacuees relocated after the storm but won't give that information to parish officials.

"FEMA told us because of privacy issues, they can't give us the addresses of our residents who are spread out in all 50 states. And no one but FEMA has that information," Rousselle said. "If we could contact them, I think a lot of them would come back if they knew we had places for them to live."

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