Today or tomorrow the floodway, up river from Baton Rouge, is likely to be opened. According to the Associated Press: “About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way when the Morganza spillway is unlocked for the first time in 38 years. Sheriffs and National Guardsmen were warning people in a door-to-door sweep through the area, and shelters were ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.”
According to the Times-Picayune if Morganza is not opened the flooding in New Orleans would be much worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Several news reports claim the epic Mississippi flooding has already swamped at least 1000 homes just between Memphis and Vicksburg.
Housing has — predictably — emerged as the most persistent challenge of the April 27 tornado outbreak. According to the New York Times:
In the tornado-torn rural stretches and cities of the South, the scope and size of a newly homeless population are beginning to sink in.
There are as yet no solid estimates of the number of people who need places to live, although it surely will be more than 10,000, federal and state emergency officials say. And many of them are poor, working class or elderly — those most at risk of becoming permanently homeless.
In Tuscaloosa, at least 5,000 homes and apartments were heavily damaged or lost completely in a city of 93,000 residents, according to a city estimate.
State and city inspectors spent the week combing the city, trying to determine how much foreclosed or vacant housing was available, what could be repaired, and just how many people might truly be left without somewhere to live.
Shaun Donovan, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, has suggested using existing stock and foreclosed property combined with low-cost loans to house everyone who needs it in urban areas. But Mayor Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa is not so sure.
“I don’t think you’re going to find enough available stock, but I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “What I want to see from FEMA is measurable goals and objectives.”
Just to be on the safe side, Mr. Maddox has identified 12 sites around the city with sewer and water hookups that might be suitable for FEMA mobile homes.
Two months after the March 11 earthquake-and-tsunami 127,000 Japanese remain in emergency shelters, mostly schools. The number of evacuees living with family or in other unofficial sources of shelter cannot be accurately estimated but is thought to be at least as high. Construction of replacement housing has been much slower than promised by political leadership. According to the Wall Street Journal:
The delays have resulted from complicating factors like the lack of suitable land, struggles to procure building supplies and labor, and the complexity of funneling the requests between different government levels.
But the hardest trial thus far has been to find enough safe construction sites. The tsunami that wiped out whole villages and redrew the coastal shores left towns with limited options on where to build houses to accommodate displaced residents, many of whom prefer to remain close to their hometowns.
Iwate Prefecture said it has secured sites to build 12,500 houses, but is still in need of enough to land for another 2,500 residences – a burden left up to each municipality. It has also been difficult for coastal towns in Miyagi Prefecture, where some 30,000 houses are needed, to locate secure building sites.
“Much of the damage was sustained along the coastline, once heavy residential areas. Most of that is now unusable, which has forced towns into the difficult position of looking for land elsewhere,” said Kuniyuki Onodera, a Miyagi Prefecture official.
Some towns like Minami-Sanriku are maximizing the use of public lands by building on school yards, and have begun approaching private owners to lease their plots. The dearth of sufficient land is prevalent in Minami-Sanriku, heavily flooded from the tsunami, with over 6,600 residents in local shelters. Out of the 3,300 housing requests, construction has begun on about 800 units as of May 2, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
In Otsuchicho, located in Iwate Prefecture, where public land is scarce, negotiations with private land owners to procure enough space for 2,000 temporary homes was perhaps the biggest cause for the slow start, said Tatsuo Kimura, a town official. But the town recently secured land for all temporary houses. Some 80 homes were constructed in April and the land ministry aims to erect 860 more by the end of May.
“The pace has picked up gradually and we hope that with the negotiations behind us, progress will be faster in the coming months,” said Mr. Kimura.
It takes about three weeks to build a prefab home, which ranges from 20 to 40 square meters in size.
Replacement housing is a persistent — and pernicious — problem for disaster response and recovery. From a policy/strategy perspective there are at least two fundamental problems. First, in the vast majority of jurisdictions there is no serious replacement housing preparedness strategy. Anywhere and anytime that emergency housing is needed for more than a handful of families local capacity is quickly exceeded. Second, even in those rare cases where mass housing preparedness (different than emergency shelter) is on the official agenda, the private sector is almost never involved until after the fact.
The HUD secretary’s proposal to look hard at existing housing stock, see above, makes sense. According to the Birmingham News, “Donovan is even considering using foreclosed homes, having identified 1,000 such homes in Alabama that are vacant and could be occupied by storm victims, either to buy or to rent.” But it is time-consuming and difficult to develop an innovative process when hundreds of families are in immediate need.
A suggestion: Create a low-cost options market for a national strategic housing reserve. Through this system private sector owners and managers of housing would be involved well-ahead of the event to identify available shelter, guarantee the price, and pre-load contracts to be exercised in case of emergency.