Hurricane homeless may get cottages

WASHINGTON – Storm victims living in cramped trailers soon may be able to move into sunny little cottages with big porches that are built to withstand wind and water.

The Senate is considering an unprecedented step: allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide inexpensive, permanent housing to Americans who have lost their homes to a natural disaster.

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee, headed by GOP Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, will consider adding money to President Bush’s $19 billion request aimed at helping the Gulf Coast recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Mississippi officials hope the panel approves funding to build 20,000 Katrina Cottages – tiny homes born of a new architectural movement that look like traditional Gulf Coast cottages.

Under current law, FEMA is allowed to provide only temporary housing to disaster victims. That has resulted in the scattering of 37,000 trailers along the Gulf Coast. But the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana have argued that there are better alternatives to the trailers, which were welcomed as part of the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina.

“The federal government needs more options in future hurricanes,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

But there’s opposition in Congress, and in the Bush administration, to altering FEMA’s mission. “I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that we’re designed to make people whole when our job is to get them back on their feet,” FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said.

To advance his vision of rebuilding the storm-ravaged coast, Barbour asked town planner Andres Duany of Miami, who is known as the father of the “new urbanism,” to come up with ideas.

New urbanism is an architectural movement that embraces old-fashioned, small-town concepts. It promotes communities where people can walk to shopping, churches and schools, and it promotes traditional homes with large front porches that invite socializing.

Duany asked New York architect Marianne Cusato to draw blueprints for an affordable, storm-proof home with Southern charm.

The result: a 308-square-foot home with one large room, a tiny bunk-bed sleeping space, a kitchenette and a shower-stall bath. It has many windows to let air and sun in, and a wide porch. The exterior is waterproof, built of a mixture of fiberboard and cement that looks like wood siding.

“It’s designed to take a swim in the South,” Cusato said.

The cottages – built as modular units and as do-it-yourself kits – are expected to withstand 130-mph winds and come with wall units that provide heat and air conditioning.

Cusato’s cottage is estimated to cost about $35,000 to build, compared with the roughly $75,000 that FEMA spends to buy and deliver a trailer.

“The idea that came out of this disaster is that it’s possible to make affordable housing nice,” said Cusato.

Some storm victims may elect to live in the cottage while their homes are being repaired, then use the cottage as an outbuilding. Others may transform the cottage into a permanent home.

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