More than just a shelter

The idea of having no place like home often crosses my mind after returning from a holiday, but rarely have I thought about it in the context of a disaster until researching for this article. Alike most natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. The hurricane hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005 and New Orleans became the most severely affected city in desperate need of housing solutions[1].

Destroyed Homes from Hurricane Katrina via World Vision

In response to the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered trailers and mobile homes as an emergency housing solution for the displaced victims[2]. The trailers were beneficial in being portable and they offered the privacy and security which communal housing solutions often lack. Despite these efforts, housing still fell short of the overwhelming demand and the large number of trailers turned out to be far beyond the nation’s manufacturing capacity[3]. Additionally, hotels and cruise ships were provided to assist with the housing shortage[4]. The adaptive reuse of existing places like cruise ships and hotels were a much quicker alternative to building new post-disaster housing. However, the advantages of housing people in trailers, cruise ships and hotels may not necessarily equal a successful solution.

Trailers Provided by FEMA via World Vision

Throughout FEMA’S post-disaster management, the primary focus had been on providing the basic needs of having a shelter and ensuring the time and cost efficiency of the disaster relief solutions but unfortunately the support for emotional recovery was placed at the bottom of the list. The ability to meet the constraints of cost, time and scarce resources during a disaster has also been a major focus for evaluating whether a post-disaster project was successful or not but once again, the voices of the victims are often neglected. Further exploration into the experiences of evacuees living in the trailers and cruise ships revealed underlying problems of the disaster response. Some occupants expressed that the trailers were difficult to personalise and adjust to their usual living habits, along with other issues of limited movement and activity space[5]. Living on cruise ships were also rejected by evacuees who felt that being isolated on a cruise ship made it difficult for them to find a job and reconnect with their community[6]. These problems may have been resolved with more active communications between FEMA and the evacuees to understand their concerns and what they really wanted.

Many evacuees ended up going to the most familiar shelters they could find which included temporarily residing with families and friends if they had the option to[7]. Perhaps the feeling of having no place like home applies more than ever to those who have gone through the heartbreaking experience of losing their home. No doubt, providing for the basic needs of having a shelter is essential and trailers were able to achieve that but the lack of flexibility to adapt the trailers into a familiar way of living was a shortcoming.

The lessons from the response to Hurricane Katrina concerning the experience of evacuees are worth reflecting on in the wake of future disaster relief proposals. The appropriate selection of shelters is essential in disaster recovery but more importantly, a greater emphasis on the opinions of evacuees during the design of response plans may lead to a more comforting recovery.



[1] “Lessons learned from Katrina, FEMA says it won’t rely on trailers for Irma, Harvey victims,” The Advocate, accessed April 12, 2021,

[2] The Advocate, [2] “Lessons learned from Katrina, FEMA says it won’t rely on trailers for Irma, Harvey victims.”

[3] “A Failure of Initiative,” Shelter and Housing, accessed April 11, 2021,

[4] “Cruise Ships, Spurned by Evacuees, Are Home to Displaced City Workers and Families,” The New York Times, accessed April 12, 2021,

[5] Shelter and Housing, ““A Failure of Initiative.”

[6] The New York Times, “Cruise Ships, Spurned by Evacuees, Are Home to Displaced City Workers and Families.”

[7] “Survivor Stories: Family reflects on how Hurricane Katrina brought them closer together,” Today, accessed April 13, 2021,