Trailer Hitch

by Nathan Stubbs

Mickey Olivier couldn't get any answers when FEMA neglected to pick up one of its vacated trailers from his RV lot. Now he's trying to turn the tables.

Mickey Olivier doesn't understand the way FEMA hooks up its trailers. "Look," Olivier says, pointing to the sewage connection on one of the FEMA trailers at his RV campsite. A series of PVC pipes, connected at 90-degree angles and fastened to a wooden post, forms a stair-shaped line down to the drain in the ground. "What's all this for?" he asks.

He walks across to a neighboring trailer and looks at a flexible black hose that was used to hook up its sewage. "Flex hose. That's all you need," he says. "That's about $30 right there."

Turning his attention back to the FEMA trailer, he says, "They probably spent about $300. They put rigid pipe and anchored all of this just like it was a permanent mobile home." Olivier also questions the need for the cinder blocks FEMA stacked underneath the rear of the trailers for support, rather than using the jacks that already come attached to the trailers.

"This is overkill," Olivier says incredulously. "Government waste."

A stout former Lafayette city fireman with a thick white beard, Olivier lives and works on his pay-to-fish aquafarm and RV campsite Catfish Heaven, located just outside of St. Martinville. Lately, FEMA's ability to hook up trailers hasn't concerned him as much as its procedure for picking them up. The trailer in front of Olivier has been sitting vacant in his lot for more than two months.

"I've talked with three FEMA representatives. I called two congressman, two state senators, the governor, the lieutanent governor, the DA and the sheriff," Olivier says. "Nobody could help me. I just want to know what my rights are."

About two weeks ago, Olivier says, FEMA finally sent someone to pick the trailer up, but he turned them away. He's now determined to collect on the two months of back rent that FEMA owes him for the empty trailer occupying one of his camper sites. Unless they pay up, he says they'll need a court order to get their trailer back from him.

"I want to see what happens," Olivier says. "I'm making a point. I want to show them how stupid and absurd the FEMA system is."

More than a year after Katrina, logistical issues with FEMA trailers are still a problem. This past summer, when some storm-struck Gulf Coast residents were still desperately awaiting housing assistance from FEMA, hundreds of brand new trailers sat unused for more than a month in two large FEMA park sites in Morgan City and Plaquemines Parish.

In Lafayette, FEMA brought approximately 40 brand new trailers out to Acadian Park at the end of 2005, which sat unused for three months before FEMA finally hauled them off. According to Lafayette Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux, FEMA claimed the sewage fixtures at Acadian Park did not meet its specifications. "Nobody ever used [the trailers]," Boudreaux says. FEMA ultimately paid the city of Lafayette $45,000 rent for the camper sites.

Olivier's RV camp began filling up with New Orleans-area evacuees ' many of whom came in their own campers ' after Katrina. He allowed FEMA to place five of its trailers at his campsite for evacuees. While FEMA provided the trailers, the occupants were responsible for renting the camper sites at a cost of $350 a month. Olivier helped out storm evacuees when he could, cooking for them, helping to find work for some and even forgoing some of the rent. He doesn't have the same level of sympathy for FEMA.

"See, FEMA is nobody," Olivier notes. "It's all subcontractors. The only fulltime paid employees [for FEMA] as I understand is the director and maybe his secretary. The rest are all subcontractors.

"And the biggest subcontractor," he continues, "assigns and hires other subcontractors in various areas of the country where they've had the catastrophes. And it's just a bureaucratic nightmare. Nobody knows what the other is doing over here, and they don't talk to each other. Even [U.S. Rep. Charles] Boustany's office told me that they can't even get straight answers from FEMA. It's so friggin' screwed up. Nobody knows s--t. And that's the point."

When two FEMA trailer occupants left Catfish Heaven over the summer, Olivier says the trailers were picked up promptly and without incident. His troubles began in September, when his third FEMA trailer was scheduled for pickup. Two weeks after its occupant had left, the trailer was still there, and Olivier started making some phone calls. He started with Rep. Boustany's office, which directed him to a FEMA hotline in Baton Rouge. When he spoke to a FEMA rep, they told him that the trailer was scheduled for pickup, but they couldn't tell him when.

"I said, 'Give me the number to the subcontractor, and I'll call him.' And she said, 'No, can't do that.'"

After another week had gone by and FEMA still hadn't picked the trailer up, Olivier began pleading with state police and the St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Office for help, asking if they could have the trailer moved somewhere else for FEMA to pick up. Both offices said it was out of their jurisdiction.

"We just went round and round with this foolishness," Olivier recalls. "I said I want to know what my rights are. I don't have a contract with FEMA. I haven't been appointed the guardian of this damn trailer. I want it off my property. I want you to pick it up and you put it in storage and you fight with FEMA to collect the storage [cost]."

The state police directed Olivier to the same FEMA hotline he had started with. When he called again, he had a conversation almost identical to his previous call to FEMA: they again told him that the trailer was scheduled for pickup, but could not tell him when or how he could reach the subcontractor.

Olivier, who documented each of his calls in a notebook now filled with notes and phone numbers, got a call soon afterward from a man who said he was the congressional representative for FEMA.

"He kind of expressed to me that I feel your pain, and we're trying to do everything we can and blah, blah, blah," Olivier recollects. "And I said, 'You ain't doin' a goddamn thing, but wasting my taxpayer's money. The thing that upsets me is there's people still trying to get these damn trailers, and y'all are so screwed up you don't even know where there at, when they're going to be picked up or what to do with the goddamn things and you're getting paid for it. That's what pisses me off.'"

After their initial conversation, the FEMA congressional rep called back twice to check and see if the trailer had been picked up.

Sitting over a cup of coffee at his dining room table, Olivier grins and adjusts the New Orleans Saints visor on his head as he recalls the last conversation with the FEMA congressional representative.

"I told him, 'No, they haven't picked [the trailer] up yet.' But I said, 'Now I got a new twist on this thing. When they come to pick it up now, I'm going to tell you what the sheriff told me: get a court order. You ain't pickin' it up till I get my money or a court order. Don't send him up here."

When FEMA recently sent out a subcontractor anyway, Olivier turned them away.

Rachel Rodi, a FEMA spokeswoman in New Orleans who was unfamiliar with Olivier's case, said FEMA does impose deadlines on its subcontractors for picking up vacated trailers. In the case of Catfish Heaven, she says, "It must have been some kind of communication breakdown." To her knowledge, FEMA has never paid back rent to a landowner for being late on picking up a trailer, but she indicated a willingness to negotiate. "We appreciate him letting us put trailers there, so we want to do everything we can to work with Mr. Olivier to try and better the situation."

The FEMA trailer is still there, among several other vacant spaces in Olivier's RV lot. This time of year is typically slow for the fish farm and campsite, and Olivier says there's nothing he can do with the trailer. The last tenant locked the keys inside, took the power cord and, according to one of his employees, also left meat in the refrigerator, which has probably ruined the trailer by now. Olivier's also been afraid to move it himself for fear of damaging it and potentially being held liable.

"So now I just want to see what's going to happen," Olivier says. "The point I want to make is how screwed up they are. To take two months and just come pick it up and say thank you and not pay me? Screw them. I've paid my taxes."