There’s No Place Like Home

The historical problems with emergency housing.

“FEMAville” built after Hurricane Floyd

With estimates of the time before evacuees can return to New Orleans ranging from months to years, there is an immediate need for housing for those who have been displaced. FEMA has announced that it will fill this need in a variety of ways, including renting cruise ships and hotel rooms, buying trailers, and using military bases. In his 1978 classic, Shelter After Disaster, British architect Ian Davis examines contemporary and historic experiences with providing shelter in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. His observations are worth repeating in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Natural disasters invariably bring out architectural proposals for so-called emergency housing. The New York Times has already published Daniel Libeskind’s proposed temporary modular shelters for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka and quotes the architect suggesting that something similar could work here. Architects in the past have proposed a variety of ingenious shelters, including prefabs, inflatables, geodesic dome kits, sprayed polyurethane igloos, and temporary housing made of cardboard tubes and plastic beer crates. As Davis points out, not only are these often untested “universal” solutions generally prohibitively expensive, their exotic forms are usually ill-suited to local conditions. That may be why such shelters, when they have been deployed, have frequently been rejected by users, and why historically the most common temporary shelter is the tent. Emergency housing sounds compelling, but it almost never works.

Tent city in Turkey after the 1999 earthquakes

Even less popular than unusual forms of housing are communal shelters. In an emergency, people seek the support of the family. Since our idea of the family is inextricably linked to having a space of one’s own, what people want is some kind of home. That is why FEMA wants to get evacuees out of the Astrodome and into the 50,000 campers and trailers they have reportedly ordered. Trailers are expensive, but at least they are mobile and could be moved to sites in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast at some point. Within months of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the city built 6,000 two-room temporary wooden huts. A year later, when people were ready to return home, they attached wheels to the huts and transported them to burned-out neighborhoods.

The wheeled cottages of San Francisco are frequently cited as a successful example of temporary housing, but the earthquake destroyed 250,000 homes, so in fact most people did not use them. They did what people always do after a disaster: Many left the city altogether, some stayed with family and friends nearby, some shared space in surviving buildings, others roughed it in makeshift quarters at the edge of the city. Davis is emphatic that “when offered the choice, people put temporary housing very low on the preference list.” Disaster after disaster demonstrates that what people want is not a temporary roof, but to go home, to be among surviving family and friends, and to start rebuilding their lives.

Houston prepares for evacuees

The vast international experience of governmental and nongovernmental disaster relief agencies around the world suggests that the best strategy is to begin reconstruction as soon as possible. The reason for this is that, as Davis writes, the universal characteristic of post-disaster recovery is human improvisation and inventive resourcefulness. After the first shock, people invariably bounce back.

Relief is crucial—we have seen how crucial, in the last week. But in the longer term, as Davis describes it, relief can be the enemy of reconstruction. The more resources are poured into temporary arrangements—such as trailers and cruise ships—the less are available for reconstruction. In many cases, the longer that people are on relief, the later they start to live in their own houses on their own streets, and the later they begin their long road back to a normal life.

New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Katrina

This needs to be borne in mind in the context of the current total evacuation of New Orleans. According to Davis, “all evidence from World War II onwards indicates the failure of [compulsory evacuation].” Certainly, the situation in New Orleans poses more immediate health and logistical challenges than most disaster areas do: The water must be drained, and critical infrastructure repaired before people can live there safely. But the bureaucratic impulse to keep all citizens out until this work is completed should be resisted. People must be let back into the city, or parts of it, as soon as possible; Mayor Ray Nagin is right about that. There is already anecdotal evidence being reported that some evacuees are considering settling down in Houston, or Dallas, or San Antonio, and not returning home.

What Davis’ work also suggests is that most of the rebuilding of New Orleans will not be done by government but by the private sector, much of it by small contractors, do-it-yourselfers—and volunteers. Americans, more than most, are a nation of handymen. Their individual spirit of improvisation and inventiveness must be allowed to do its part.