- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

The only phenomenon more frightening than a killer hurricane is a government bureaucrat. You could ask anyone on the Gulf Coast.

Connie Moran is the mayor of Ocean Springs, Miss., a picturesque little town nestled about midway between the gaudy hustle of the Biloxi casinos and the bustle of the Pascagoula shipyards. But a lot of Ocean Springs, like other towns in Katrina’s path, is gone.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the oft-cursed FEMA — said it would send trailers for the homeless, Mayor Moran was properly grateful but had a better idea.

“She envisioned a neighborhood of ‘Katrina cottages’ — tiny yellow houses built in a Southern style,” the Los Angeles Times reports, “with sloped metal roofs and big front porches. They would be built with concrete foundations, not the tenuous straps and anchors that tether trailers to the ground.

“A New York architect designed a prototype cottage and set it in the center of [Ocean Springs], where it has been winning raves from locals. At 300 square feet, it’s cozy, sleeps four, boasts ample storage and is covered in handsome siding.”

The model house was an instant hit with everybody in Ocean Springs, black and white, and the curious from Moss Point, Pecan, Orange Grove, Gautier and even Biloxi and Gulfport drove over to marvel at the friendly old-fashioned look and feel of a house that could quickly become a home. Everybody imagined sitting in a swing on the front porch of a summer’s evening, sipping a frosty glass of iced tea, listening to the cries of children at play, watching the soft gloaming slowly embrace the land, and reflecting that maybe life wasn’t so bad, after all.

Mayor Moran, who did the careful arithmetic with the architect, Marianne Cusato, learned that the cottages could be built for about $60,000, just about what the government pays to ship and set up a trailer. She asked FEMA to finance an 87-cottage pilot project on the east side of town.

FEMA said no. The law allows FEMA to provide housing only “on a temporary basis,” and the Gulf Coast residents who qualify for one of the 10,000 trailers currently parked and going to rust and ruin on an abandoned muddy airstrip in Arkansas can have one for 18 months. So Ocean Springs will soon have a trailer park, with 600 trailers to replace the 700 houses destroyed by the storm. “FEMA,” the mayor says, “is creating trailer trash.”

The law is the law, and bureaucracies are not in the business of finding a way through a beloved regulation or around a law, which, as Mr. Bumble famously observed in Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” can be “a ass — a idiot.”

The trailers will eventually be picked up and sold at auction, often to those who have lived in them, and at far less than the government paid for them. Mayor Moran thinks it’s better to invest in a long-term solution that will add value than consigning them to a trash heap.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, in behalf of similarly situated constituents in New Orleans, urged a change in the law to accommodate permanent housing in testimony to a Senate Homeland Security committee last month in Washington. “I hate to see good money thrown after temporary situations when we could be putting it into permanent housing,” she said. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who has considerable muscle with the Bush administration, asked the White House to consider replacing the trailers with Katrina cottages, and if FEMA doesn’t have the money, or can’t or won’t break it loose, the government should look elsewhere for it.

Mayor Moran and Miss Cusato, her architect, vow not to give up even if the government won’t help. They think they could find a manufacturer to fabricate the houses like trailers are fabricated. But cutting through bureaucratic red tape would be quicker, and easy for a particular someone at the White House. The president has taken a lot of flak, some of it deserved but a lot of it not, for the way the bureaucracy has bungled hurricane relief.

The Katrina cottages are natural Republican family-values balm to ease human misery. Since the bureaucrats can’t help, his friends on the coast are crying out to “let George do it.”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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