At age 26 and with three young children of her own, moving back into her mother's home was not on Alanna Ballard's agenda.
Then, on Aug. 28, came Hurricane Irene, causing historic flood damage to many areas of upstate New York. This includes the village of Prattsville in Greene County, where Ballard waits tables at Beth's Cafe. Aunt Beth Ballard runs the eatery.
The flooding wiped out the first floor of Alanna Ballard's home on Main Street in Prattsville, and she and her children had to relocate. At first, she said Wednesday, she looked for an apartment but found no landlords willing to take her in with her children unless she signed a one-year lease.
So, she said, she reluctantly moved in with her mother, Tanessa Dunn, hoping she'd soon qualify for a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer and have it placed on her property while volunteers restored her house.
But more than three months after the flood, no trailers have been set up yet in Prattsville, and only seven FEMA housing units have been occupied by flood victims in the village of Schoharie, another community devastated by flooding, according to both local officials and FEMA representatives.
"I thought they could put one right next to my house," Alanna Ballard said. "Someone from FEMA came over and put traffic cones in my driveway. I had to remove all the debris between my house and my neighbor's house. I got permission from my neighbor to chop down 100-year-old lilac trees. I thought they were getting ready to bring the trailer in. Then a lady from FEMA who comes in the diner said they couldn't put the trailer next to my house. But nobody else ever got back to me."
Now, she and her children are residing in the living room of her mother's four-room house.
"She literally had to take her couch out of the room," Alanna Ballard said. "Me and the kids are sleeping on an air mattress in the living room. It's a little claustrophobic."
Looking for shelter
As Alanna Ballard spoke, approximately 112 unoccupied manufactured housing units sat at a FEMA staging area in Cobleskill.
The delay in getting them distributed, FEMA officials explained, has largely resulted from agency rules that require that locations for them be above flood elevation levels and that the sites have access to power and sewage hookups and meet with local building codes.
"We're trying to overcome a few challenges we've been having," FEMA spokesman Chris McKniff said. Asked how long it will take FEMA to get the trailers to the people who need them, McKniff said, "We hope not terribly long."
Out of 255 New York families who have been identified by FEMA as eligible applicants for the manufactured housing units, 20 have received them so far, he said. They include one family in Greene County, seven applicants in Schoharie County and a smattering of families in Broome, Tioga and Schenectady counties. The local staging area for the trailers was provided to FEMA rent-free by Schoharie County, which owns the land, he said.
Among the people now living in one of the FEMA trailers are Ed and Patricia Manchester of the village of Schoharie. After the flooding washed away the foundation of their home, they spent 49 nights in a hotel room before moving into their new temporary home about five weeks ago. Their 12-foot-by-36-foot trailer is set up near the Knower Avenue house they had to have ripped down.
"It's been good so far -- except it's not set up for the Northeast," state engineer Ed Manchester said. "If we get any heavy snow, I'm not going to be in this. I'll probably go in my garage."
Those who get the trailers do not have to pay any rent -- only the utility bills for power and heat.
Manchester, a plant engineer employed by the state government, said the flood destroyed not only the house but also all of the couple's personal property. The couple's insurance company, he said, won't cover any of the losses because they didn't have flood insurance.
"We lost all of our wedding presents, all of the antiques my wife got from her mother and father -- everything," he said. He estimated his total losses at between $300,000 and $400,000. To help them buy another house, the couple has applied for a disaster aid loan from the Small Business Administration, but he said that process has been slow.
Recovery moving at slow pace
Schoharie County Emergency Management Director Judy Warner said many flood victims in the county are unhappy with the slow pace of the federal bureaucracy in addressing their needs.
"This is not happening as fast as people would like it to," Warner said. "There are a lot of people who have been approved to get the trailers, but they're still waiting. It can take a little while to get the permits (needed from code inspectors). They have to get the flood maps out. And then you have to set it up. Some people get frustrated when they're told they can get one but it still hasn't come yet."
Officials in Prattsville said they were briefed by FEMA on Wednesday on a plan to set up about 20 trailers at Moore's Trailer Park in the village.
"Right now we know we have about 18 families that need temporary house, and we're trying to get that housing in town because obviously the families want to stay in town," said Kevin Piccoli, chairman of the volunteer Rebuild Prattsville steering committee. "We're having difficulty working out flood plain elevation with FEMA. Every time we talk to them, the numbers keep changing.
"At best, they will have the trailers here in January, which is almost five months after the flooding. We have the location, but we're going to have to raise the elevation a couple of feet. People here are still waiting for temporary housing while they've had many units sitting in Cobleskill for a couple of months. It's just complication after complication."
Still another complication for Prattsville is that the candidate who pulled off an upset victory in the town supervisor's race this month, Allan Huggins, informed the town board this week that he will not take the office because of health problems.
Piccoli said those displaced by the flooding are staying with friends and family members. He said his own family has taken in a couple who run a hardware store and whose house was ruined.
"FEMA is trying to be sympathetic, but we need for them to give us timetables and give us something to work with," he said. "You'd have thought they'd have this process down to a science by now."
Even if FEMA could get trailers to Prattsville next week, the wait has been so long that Alanna Ballard said she no longer has any interest. She said she does not want to move her young children into a trailer park, and noted she is very thankful to the volunteers from the Bethlehem Community Church from the Albany suburb of Delmar who have been working to rebuild her house.
"By the time they get the trailers to Prattsville, hopefully my house will be done and we can move back in," she said.
But there has been one upside to the red tape ensnaring the FEMA trailers.
"Right now, living with my mother, I kind of feel like a child again," Alanna Ballard said. "I really didn't want to move in with her because before we never really got along all that well. I've been in my own space for a long time. But, you know, we're getting along a lot better now. This has been good for us as far as bonding goes."