By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The pattern once made up of orderly white trailers, stretching one after the other across a flat gravel-covered landscape, has changed.
There are large gaps in the rank and file.
Wooden steps with handrails now lead nowhere.
A forgotten yellow Tonka truck in an empty lot indicates a family left and is not coming back.
And there are few neighbors left on either side of Flo Taylor’s trailer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency-managed community site for displaced storm victims. At one time, as many as 586 households were in the units supplied by FEMA following the tornado that ripped through the city May 22, 2011. Most of them were clustered in three remote sites on the city’s far north side.
But no neighbors is no problem, Taylor said. She’s moving on, too.
“I’m finally moving out,” she said last week as she pushed one of her last armloads of belongings into the back seat of her car. “I have a new home.”
Taylor, 66, had dropped by for all that was left of the 15 months she spent in the trailer at 1506 E. Z St. It was a name she found ironic when she moved there.
“It was kind of funny. They told me the address, and I said, ‘Yeah, right. EZ Street,’” Taylor said with a smile.
‘This trailer is our world’
Knock on doors of the remaining 80 trailers at any of the temporary housing sites managed by FEMA, and most anyone who answers will say life has been anything but easy.
Some say their challenges began before the May 22 tornado. Several have disabilities, several are unemployed. At least three work long night shifts while others — friends, acquaintances — watch their children.
One, like Tammy Williams, 54, was newly married before the tornado and was in the process of combining households with her husband, who has several illnesses and is disabled. They tried to make do by living in their storm-damaged home in Duquesne.
“We said, ‘Now what’?” Williams recalled.
“We lived there three months in one room with no electricity. We carried water to flush the toilet. We went to Forest Park Baptist Church to take showers, and we ate at Joplin Family Worship Center most days.”
Their home had been twisted on its foundation, and her husband was physically unable to make repairs. As soon as they could, they moved into a FEMA trailer at Jeff Taylor Park in late summer 2011.
“It seems like a lifetime ago,” Williams said.
The couple do not work; she had a job but remains home as his caretaker.
“This trailer is our world,” she said.
She’s not sure when they’ll move. Limited in housing options by their income of $600 a month, her husband’s inability to climb stairs and two large dogs as pets, they are holding out hope for a rental house they might be able to manage.
The clock is ticking.
The trailers were authorized to be vacated by Nov. 9 — 18 months from the date of the state’s disaster declaration. The city of Joplin requested an extension of that deadline to allow for additional construction and development of local housing resources, and the request was granted in mid-October. Those remaining now have until June 9, 2013.
Rent is due
But living there is no longer free.
“Beginning Dec. 1, those applicants remaining in the units will be assessed monthly rent for as long as they live in the unit up until June 2013 when the extension program ends,” said Barb Sturner, a spokeswoman with FEMA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City.
Those who remain in the trailers must pay their first rental payment on Jan. 1, 2013. The rent is based on the fair market amount set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; a three-bedroom trailer is $757 per month, while a two-bedroom trailer is $595.
“The occupant has until Dec. 10 to appeal their rent amount,” Sturner said. “Every occupant was provided a notice from FEMA explaining their rent amount and instructions for appealing.”
Rental appeals must be accompanied by documentation supporting the reason for the appeal, such as predisaster rent, income or mortgage payment amounts.
“We’ve received about 55 appeal requests, but only nine of those have provided the documentation needed to actually process the appeal,” Sturner said.
Among those planning to appeal are Michael Lasley and Kim Edwards, who live with their 5-year-old son on the opposite end of East Z Street from Taylor.
“Pretty grim,” said Lasley of their experience there. Two days before the storm they had moved into a rental at 23rd Street and Wall Avenue.
“We watched our house get blown away and our dog get sucked out the window,” Lasley said. “We slept in our bombed-out house afterward. We didn’t know what else to do. We had just come through some hard times.”
It’s still a challenging time for them, they said. They reapplied for food stamps this year.
“I haven’t found a job,” Lasley said. “We don’t live off of much at all. She (Edwards) is trying to get on disability. She has kidney failure and is diabetic. I stay at home to take care of her.”
Although they said they have been looking for a place to live, they have not found a home or apartment in which they could keep their dog, a rescued pit bull named Ruby.
“I’ll go back to living in my car before I get rid of her,” Lasley said.
But Sturner said a lot of progress has been made.
One of the success stories is Taylor’s.
Having survived the tornado alone at home in her bathtub in her Hampshire Terrace apartment, where two of her daughters lived in nearby units, she has relied on faith, optimism and courage, she said.
Taylor and her daughters wound up living in Jeff Taylor Park as soon as trailers became available. She shared one with daughter Norma and her son, Eddie, a student at Joplin High School.
Although her place of employment for 19 years — the 15th Street Wal-Mart — also was leveled in the storm, Taylor was transferred to another store until her home store was rebuilt last November.
“God’s been good to me. We were sad, but we were blessed and alive,” she said. “I’m thankful I had a roof over my head.”
But Taylor had a goal in mind — a home of her own — and was determined to get out.
“I’ve been a single mom to five children since I was 26 when my husband was killed,” she said. “I have just had to keep the faith and be strong.”
In January, she received the good news: She, Norma and Eddie had been approved for a Habitat for Humanity home to be built on Kentucky Avenue.
“It’s been such a calming thing, to begin living there,” she said of her first few nights spent in the new home. “I don’t remember ever sleeping so restful.”
“I look forward to having a yard I can call my own. I’ve been watering the grass to get it to grow. We can rebuild our life. (The trailer) was never really home. It was just a stopping place.”
Each day in recent weeks, at least a few trailers at the FEMA community housing sites get deactivated or removed. Brandon Brewer, who works for Riley Mobile Homes, the local contractor, says he’s spending his days removing metal skirting, pulling up anchors and cleaning interiors to prepare the units to be moved. The trailers will be turned back over to the federal government and will go to Crowder College in Neosho. Some units will be auctioned to the public.