The trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were a common and much-maligned sight in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
Now, some of the government-owned travel trailers are again serving as temporary living quarters, this time for workers trying to clean up the BP oil spill near Louisiana.
But others are showing up in auctions, on Craigslist or on RV lots nationwide, including at least one in Fort Worth, Texas, in some cases with a price of $2,995, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported.
“We get a lot of people in to look at them,” said Doug Kacsir, general manager of McClain’s RV Superstores in Fort Worth, which has more than 30 of the trailers for sale. “People are interested in them.”
The government bought more than 120,000 of the trailers in 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to provide housing for those who lost their homes. The trailers were intended as temporary housing, but some were used by storm victims for several years.
In recent years, the government has sold more than 105,000 of the trailers, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.
And while federal officials have said the trailers shouldn’t be used for housing because of the levels of formaldehyde that have been found inside them, people are inquiring about buying the trailers for deer leases, ranches, construction, oil field workers and even as temporary housing for college students or summer travelers, for example.
“They are bombarding the phones right now for these trailers,” said Stacey Runnels, Internet sales director at McClain’s.
Fixer-uppers for sale
A bright yellow sign with “FEMA trailers $2,995 and up” in red letters draws some buyers into McClain’s, off Interstate 35W.
Behind a chain-link fence on the RV sales lot sit dozens of trailers, mostly white 2005 and 2006 Gulfstream Cavaliers. Most are 30 feet long and have a kitchen, dining area, bathroom and at least two living areas, including a set of bunk beds. A few other brands of trailers used by Katrina evacuees are also for sale.
Most dirt- and dust-covered trailers come in with FEMA numbers on them. Some appear to never have been used. Others have clearly been lived in and have a variety of damage, such as soft or rotting floors, ripped furniture, broken windows, stains on walls or mattresses, nonfunctioning air conditioners, even broken hitches.
Most of the trailers have a musty smell from sitting empty for years.
And none have holding tanks, which collect wastewater from sinks and bathrooms in RVs.
“If they are beyond repair, we use them for parts or sell them to wholesalers,” Kacsir said. “Some people don’t care if the floor is totally blown up, they just want to be able to get in them. Some of them are being used as firework stands. They just want to be able to be inside and have some air conditioning.”
Those worth cleaning may have water leaks fixed, walls or carpet cleaned, wood or linoleum replaced or breakaways or hitches replaced. A general safety test — and a test to make sure there are no gas leaks — will also be run, Kacsir said.
“We do a major systems check to make sure,” he said.
Damaged trailers generally sell for the lowest prices.
“Some people go out, paint them, make them nice,” Kacsir said.
McClain’s bought 1,000 trailers recently from a stockpile in Hope, Ark., to sell at its six stores — four in Texas, one in Little Rock and one in Oklahoma City.
Even more FEMA trailers were sold recently at a Ritchie Bros. auction in Fort Worth.
After the trailers were in place for hurricane victims in 2005, reports showed that the trailers contained formaldehyde, a strong-smelling chemical used to manufacture building materials and other products. Research has suggested a link between exposure to formaldehyde and cancers such as leukemia.
Formaldehyde is found in most trailers, homes and other buildings, as well as in common products such as baby shampoo, lipstick, toothpaste and paper towels. It is also used as an embalming fluid.
Exposure to the chemical can bring health problems such as rashes, skin or lung irritation and itchy eyes, and anyone affected should see a doctor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The General Services Administration requires buyers of the trailers to sign a certificate stating that the trailers won’t be used “for housing purposes” and that if the trailer is resold, the buyer will share that information with other buyers. That’s the reason for the red and white stickers that say the vehicles are “not to be used for housing” on or near the trailers, Kacsir said.
FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said, “Any individual or company who has purchased one of these units and is using it improperly is violating the law and subject to investigation and possible criminal punishment and penalties, including monetary fines or up to five years in prison.”
“FEMA takes any possible violations of the terms and conditions of how these units can be used extremely seriously,” she said. “Anyone who violates these agreements should be held accountable.”