Apr. 12—Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said trailers being staged at an industrial site in Douglas County are for survivors of September 2020 wildfires that devastated Oregon ― not to house a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States from Latin America.
People with guns showed up at the site after hearing that the recreational vehicles and trailer homes were there to house immigrants entering the country illegally, said Toney Raines, FEMA coordinating officer for the state of Oregon.
"Those rumors are false. We are not utilizing the manufactured home units or any of the travel trailers to house unaccompanied immigrants or individuals who are crossing the border in the south, the north or any other border," he said.
FEMA and state officials held a press conference to dispel rumors that have been circulating via social media.
Raines said the trailers are for Oregon residents impacted by the wildfires.
The armed people who showed up at the staging area spoke to guards and voiced their opposition to the presence of the trailers. They did not brandish their weapons in a threatening manner and no one was hurt, Raines said.
"Everyone has the right to bear arms as appropriate under state laws," he said. "We would not infringe on those rights. But we are concerned when people start showing up with those types of sidearms for the safety of all the employees and the individuals themselves."
The trailer homes, popularly known as FEMA trailers, are coming from Texas. FEMA also bought RVs in Oregon to house fire survivors, officials said.
Previously, FEMA was using the Jackson County Expo as a staging site for trailers and RVs, which were then hauled to communities in several counties that lost homes to the fires. Jackson County was hardest hit, losing about 2,500 homes to the September 2020 infernos that torched more than 4,000 homes statewide.
After FEMA's contract for the Expo site expired, the federal agency picked the vacant site of a former paper mill in the community of Gardiner, which is located near the coast northwest of Roseburg.
The stockpiling of RVs and trailers there has raised eyebrows.
One person wrote on Facebook, "Guards in Federal white police cars with blackened windows stand guard at the gate and several other guards at different locations on the property. I personally think they are going to put illegals there. Completely fenced with barb wire on top."
Raines said FEMA has a responsibility to safeguard the mobile homes that are needed by survivors to recover from the devastation.
He said the property is also a working area with heavy equipment being used at the site. The mobile homes are cleaned, inspected and ― if necessary ― repaired, then loaded and hauled away. Curious spectators have to be kept out to ensure safety.
Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said states in the east have more experience seeing FEMA trailers because they get hit by hurricanes. But such wide-scale devastation is new for Oregonians.
"This is the biggest disaster we've ever faced," he said.
John Vial, Jackson County Emergency Operations Center director, said he didn't hear unusual rumors circulating when the FEMA trailers were being staged at The Expo.
"We didn't get any weird questions," he said.
Vial said some people wanted to know what they were for. They seemed satisfied when they were told The Expo was serving as the staging area for the whole state.
Jackson County already has fire survivors living in 96 FEMA units that are scattered around the area, including the Southern Oregon RV Park near The Expo, Valley of the Rogue State Park and White City, Vial said.
FEMA is in negotiations to use 120 spaces at three trailer parks that have been cleaned of fire debris. That should be enough room to take care of 114 households that are eligible for FEMA housing and have requested that help, Vial said.
Not everyone qualifies for FEMA housing help.
Jackson County still had 785 fire survivors living in hotels as of last week, Vial said.
After disasters, FEMA typically tries to house people who've lost their homes in other available housing, such as apartments, houses and empty trailer park spaces in communities. FEMA views trailers as a last resort.
But Jackson County was facing a crisis of not enough housing even before the destructive Almeda and South Obenchain fires. The Almeda fire severely damaged 20 mobile home parks that served as a key source of affordable housing and wiped out whole neighborhoods of stick-built houses.
"We have almost no vacancy anywhere. We're at essentially 0% vacancy," Vial said. "These FEMA trailers are absolutely essential. We don't have other options for housing. Without bringing in and placing trailers, people will have nowhere to go. These trailers are absolutely critical for our community."
FEMA's mission to house people officially runs for 18 months starting from the date of the September 2020 fires. However, many people haven't been placed in FEMA trailers yet, and the clock is ticking.
It's up to the state of Oregon to request an extension if one is needed.
Phelps said state officials know many people won't have found permanent housing by the time the 18-month window opens.
"So we'll continue to work with our federal partners, impacted communities, our state agencies and nonprofit organizations to ensure that any extension that's needed will be requested through the governor to make sure we're taking care of the Oregonians that were impacted," Phelps said.
Jackson County Commissioners have raised the idea of letting fire survivors buy the FEMA trailers they're living in when FEMA's housing mission ends. The trailers could offer cheaper housing than many other available options.
Raines said FEMA has a disposal process for units after a housing mission ends. FEMA is working with the state and other partners to try and find long-term housing solutions.
He said FEMA could look at selling units to survivors as one possibility. However, he noted the units would have to be moved to a site where a person wants to live, and that comes with additional expenses.
On the immigration front, President Joe Biden's administration is struggling to deal with an influx of migrant children and teens after Biden said he would end former President Donald Trump's policy of expelling unaccompanied minors caught entering the country without authorization.
Single adults and families caught entering illegally continue to be expelled in most cases, but unaccompanied minors can be released to relatives or other sponsors in the United States after a vetting process.
With the system overburdened, minors are being placed in shelters, tents, churches, convention centers, on military bases and in other stopgap housing.
Biden has deployed FEMA to help other agencies grappling with the issue.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.