New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called them “trailers.” Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro has referred to them as “mobile housing.” And even Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate described them last week as “mobile homes.”
But, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the federal housing units that were trucked into New Jersey this week and are awaiting displaced victims of Hurricane Sandy are none of those things, officials say.
Despite their resemblance to housing found in trailer parks across the country, federal officials call the emergency units “factory-built” or “manufactured homes.”
“They’re not travel trailers. They’re not mobile homes,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which regulates the units. “They’re factory-built homes…They don’t have wheels.”
Making that distinction for the 40 homes sitting in a Lakehurst, N.J., staging area is important. The trailer-style homes deployed after the Gulf Coast area was struck by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 were widely derided and were the subjects of a high-profile lawsuit against the homes’ manufacturers. Residents claimed that living in those units for months exposed them to high levels of formaldehyde and caused health problems. The lawsuit was settled for $37.5 million this year.
“I would imagine anyone who’s heard about the quote-unquote ‘FEMA trailers’ would be apprehensive about living in those units,” said Justin Woods, an attorney at Gainsburgh Benjamin, the New Orleans law firm that represented the plaintiffs in the “FEMA trailers” case.
The manufactured homes sitting in New Jersey are regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a FEMA spokesman said, whereas the “FEMA trailers” used after Katrina and Rita weren’t. HUD oversees what materials are used in the building of the homes and the quality of the construction process, according to HUD.
“They are built to the same strong standards as millions of manufactured housing units being lived in across the nation that consumers can purchase,” the FEMA spokesman said.
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Companies that manufactured mobile homes for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricane Katrina are nearing a settlement to resolve thousands of claims that the emergency shelters exposed Gulf Coast storm victims to potentially dangerous fumes, court records show.
A proposed class-action settlement involving about two dozen mobile home manufacturers and their subsidiaries is expected to be filed today (Jan. 21), The Associated has reported. A court filing Tuesday says the companies and plaintiffs’ attorneys are “very close” to finalizing an agreement, which would have to be approved by a federal judge in New Orleans.
A lead plaintiffs’ attorney and a lawyer for the companies that made mobile homes for FEMA wouldn’t comment Thursday on the financial terms of the settlement.
The companies involved include Cavalier Home Builders, Patriot Homes Inc., CMH Manufacturing and Champion Home Builders.
The deal could benefit several thousand families in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama who lived in government-issued mobile homes after the 2005 storms and claim they were exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde — a chemical used in building materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
“It’s a slow and steady process, but this is a large step in the right direction toward the hopeful resolution of all claims,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Justin Woods.
The settlement doesn’t involve claims for residents who lived in FEMA travel trailers, which housed the majority of hurricane victims. Government tests found that travel trailers had significantly higher average formaldehyde levels than mobile homes, which are larger and sturdier.
If U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt approves the deal, it would be the second mass settlement of claims over formaldehyde exposure in the government-issued housing units that FEMA ordered after the 2005 storms.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., which supplied FEMA with travel trailers, agreed last year to a settlement resolving about 7,500 to 8,000 claims, according to attorney Jerry Saporito, who represented the company. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Fleetwood had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Three cases against companies that manufactured and installed FEMA travel trailers have been tried before Engelhardt, who is presiding over a batch of hundreds of consolidated lawsuits. The juries in all three trials sided with the companies and didn’t award any damages.
In May 2009, Engelhardt dismissed some of the state law claims filed against mobile home makers, ruling they were barred under federal law. Engelhardt said Congress never intended to allow states to set higher safety standards for mobile homes than those imposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“This would essentially require each mobile home manufacturer to tailor its industry, state-by-state, in an attempt to comply with the peculiarities of each state’s law, as then interpreted by each particular state’s judiciary,” the judge wrote. “This outcome is clearly at odds with the goal of uniformity that Congress sought.”
More than 143,000 families received temporary housing from FEMA after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
FEMA initially downplayed concerns that elevated levels of formaldehyde were jeopardizing their health. In February 2008, however, the agency announced it would rush to move tens of thousands of residents out of travel trailers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, has upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice a man’s suit against Keystone RV Co. relating to travel trailers provided for hurricane victims in 2005, according to www.leagle.com.
Raymond Bell III was one of thousands of plaintiffs who filed suit against Keystone and other RV builders, claiming the units provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.
The “FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation” has engulfed the RV industry for several years, but to date no RV maker has been found guilty of building or providing harmful products.
Bell sued Keystone, Shaw Environmental Inc. and FEMA.
Bell challenged the dismissal with prejudice of his case following the district court’s denial of his requests either to substitute a new “bellwether” 1 plaintiff or to continue the scheduled trial date.
The court’s actions were taken in the course of its management of thousands of similar consolidated suits for allegedly injurious formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“After reviewing all the factors that affected the district court’s decisions, we find no abuse of discretion and affirm,” the federal court announced on Tuesday (Dec. 14).
In the days after hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana and Mississippi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought 145,000 trailers to house the thousands of victims displaced by the storm. Over the next five years, the trailers — which emitted formaldehyde vapors, but which were nevertheless used by thousands who couldn’t find any other place to live — became a symbol of the federal government’s bumbling in the face of a national tragedy. Sold at auction, and then repurposed as housing for BP cleanup workers, the trailers remain a problem that just won’t go away, Daily Finance reported.
The FEMA trailer debacle began with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions. Using temporary housing to shelter victims of natural disasters is hardly a new idea; in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, survivors lived in temporary shacks, and FEMA used trailers after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1994. When Katrina destroyed 75% of the housing units in New Orleans, the agency scurried to respond to the disaster, spending $2.7 billion on 145,000 trailers and mobile homes to house an estimated 770,000 newly-homeless victims of the hurricane.
Unfortunately, in the rush to find temporary housing, problems quickly emerged. Many of the trailers FEMA purchased were, by its own standards, unsuitable for deployment in a flood plain. Even worse, an estimated 42% of them emitted formaldehyde, a chemical that causes nasal cancer and nosebleeds, and can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems. Nevertheless, faced with a choice between homelessness or living in toxic trailers, thousands chose to stay in the FEMA trailers.
Originally, the trailers were supposed to house residents for a maximum of 18 months. But five years after Katrina hit the Gulf coast, 860 Louisiana and 176 Mississippi families still live in FEMA-owned shelters. But those residents represent only a fraction of the problem: According to experts, thousands of other Katrina victims live in trailers purchased from FEMA, while 12,000 people are still homeless in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, since 2006, FEMA has sold over 130,000 of the trailers for a total of $279 million; at one auction in January 2010, the agency sold 93,000 of them for $133 million. The sales prompted massive controversy, partially for the poor resale cost: the January sale yielded approximately seven cents on the dollar. More importantly, critics worried that the formaldehyde-emitting trailers, many of which were outfitted with labels declaring them unfit for human habitation, would be passed along to bargain-hunting home buyers.
During the BP oil spill cleanup, an even more insidious development occurred: as the New York Times reported in June, the trailers — often missing their government-mandated warning labels — were re-purposed as temporary housing for cleanup workers. The shelters may have lacked proper documentation, but they still had the formaldehyde. For example, Alpha-One, a disaster contracting firm in the Gulf area, sold dozens of the trailers to cleanup companies. Asked about the sale, the company’s owner, Ron Mason, dismissed the formaldehyde threat: “Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that’s formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It’s not a big deal.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced a post-Katrina milestone Wednesday (Aug. 25). After Hurricane Katrina forced families into more than 45,000 temporary housing units provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2005, only 176 of the travel trailers are occupied in the state today, including 93 units in the three coastal counties, WLOX-TV, Biloxi, reported.
“Over the past five years, we have been committed to ensuring there is an adequate, affordable supply of housing for residents affected by Hurricane Katrina,” Barbour said. “Through innovative programs we have been able to expand the number of public housing units and build back neighborhoods stronger than before.”
The governor’s office points to the low number of remaining temporary housing units as a clear indicator of the success of Barbour’s post-Katrina housing recovery efforts.
The FEMA travel trailer became a symbol of the housing crisis that persisted after more than 200,000 homes were damaged by Katrina’s powerful storm surge and winds, including more than 60,000 residences that received major damage or were destroyed. More than 45,000 temporary housing units were occupied in Mississippi after Katrina.
As the state approaches the fifth anniversary of the storm, there are 22 FEMA temporary housing units in Hancock County, 56 in Harrison County; 15 in Jackson County; 31 in Pearl River County; 6 in Stone County; 3 in George County.
Another 43 FEMA trailers are in use in other areas of the state.
The federal government does not need to publish new, specific standards on federal aid for homes damaged by natural disasters, the 5th Circuit ruled. The court said the current standards, though not as precise as homeowners would like, comply with federal law, according to the Courthouse News Service.
In the wake of Hurricane Dolly, more than 38,000 Texas families asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help paying for home repairs.
Though FEMA approved the distribution of $30 million, including $25 million for housing assistance, it denied aid to many homeowners, citing “insufficient damage.”
Homeowners sued, claiming FEMA failed to adopt clear standards ensuring that federal aid would be disbursed “in an equitable and impartial manner.”
A federal judge granted their motion for an injunction forcing FEMA to publish and apply “ascertainable standards” for its housing assistance decisions, and to reconsider all denials of federal aid for Hurricane Dolly victims.
On appeal, FEMA argued that it did publish standards and regulations, according to federal law, even if the homeowners were unhappy with them.
The New Orleans-based appeals court agreed.
“In short, although [FEMA’s regulations] do not lay out the ‘criteria, standards, and procedures for determining eligibility for assistance’ with as much specificity as might be desired, we cannot conclude that the regulations contravene Congress’s directive to issue eligibility regulations,” Judge Emilio Garza wrote.
And because the agency complied with its legal obligations, the court said, its current standards are entitled to deference.
Garza rejected homeowners’ claim that the standards are so vague they’re effectively “arbitrary and capricious.”
“A regulation could always be more specific, and so it will always contain some vagueness that vests on-the-ground personnel with a level of discretion,” Garza wrote. “FEMA’s regulations for housing repair assistance are especially vague about the meaning of ‘disaster-related.’ Indeed, they do not venture beyond the statutory language.
“But this vagueness does not automatically mean the regulations are invalid. Given the nature of FEMA’s work and the compressed time it has to make individual determinations, the agency requires relatively wide discretion for the ground-level workers who make initial assistance decisions.”
The three-judge panel vacated the injunction as having been “issued in error.”
A federal court jury in New Orleans on Monday (May 24) found in favor of RV manufacturer Recreation by Design LLC, Elkhart, Ind., in the third ”bellwether” lawsuit involving allegedly formaldehyde-laced trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as temporary housing for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The jury deliberated for about two hours after hearing eight days of testimony that alleged that Earlene Castanel’s health had been damaged by a trailer laden with formaldehyde.
”There have been three trials and all of them have resulted in defense verdicts,” said Andrew Weinstock, a partner in the Metairie, La., lawfirm of Duplass, Zwain, Bourgeois, Pfister and Weinstock.
Recreation by Design and other RV manufacturers sold tens of thousands of emergency living units to FEMA following the 2005 hurricanes.
Two previous suits involving Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind. — in which Weinstock was lead attorney — and Forest River Inc., Elkhart, Ind., have resulted in favorable verdicts for RV manufacturers.
Another lawsuit again Gulf Stream is expected to go to trial in September with a others to follow, unless plaintiffs and defendants come to a settlement.
Weinstock estimated that 60,000 lawsuits have been filed against builders of the FEMA trailers.
”That’s a guesstimate and I think it’s a pretty good one,” Weinstock said.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt earlier ruled that the lawsuits couldn’t be combined as a class action, meaning that each lawsuit had to be tried individually.
The ”bellwether” trials for a handful of claims chosen from among hundreds that had been filed are designed to help the New Orleans court test the cases’ merits and possibly settle other claims over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.
Weinstock said that at some point, defendants are likely to find the lawsuits untenable if juries continue to deliver verdicts in favor of RV manufacturers.
”(Plaintiff attorneys) signed up a lot of people and at some point, we need to figure out which have cases and which don’t,” Weinstock said. ”The challenge (for defense attorneys) is figuring out what makes on a case with merit and which ones don’t.
”We’ve not done an inventory on who has filed suits. But obviously, we are not going to try 60,000 cases.”
A main point that Recreation by Design lawyers made in defense of the company was that there is little evidence that formaldehyde levels in the trailers were out of the ordinary.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tested more than 500 trailers and found only six with formaldehyde levels in excess of levels established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for manufactured homes.
As Tennessee residents begin the process of rebuilding from historic flooding, many are using assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rent or purchase campers or RVs.
The state’s Department of Commerce and Insurance has resources to help residents who opt to do this and issued an advisory this week.
With the money they get from FEMA, residents can rent RVs, travel trailers or manufactured housing. RV dealers must be licensed by the Motor Vehicle Commission.
Anyone who sells a vehicle designed as temporary living quarters for recreation, camping or travel use, and that either has its own motor or is drawn by another vehicle, must be registered with the commission. To find licensed dealers, visit http://verify.tn.gov or http://licsrch.state.tn.us/.
To find information about disciplinary actions taken against licensed dealers, visit http://tn.gov/commerce/boards/archive.shtml.
Manufactured homes are regulated by the Manufactured Housing Division of Fire Prevention (http://tn.gov/commerce/sfm/manufactHouse.shtml#).
The Consumer Affairs division also might have complaint information related to sellers of such vehicles on file. Visit www.tn.gov/consumer/ to check the complaint histories of specific companies.
Tennesseans weighing transactions with sellers should, at a minimum, follow these guidelines:
- Understand the rental company’s rules and requirements before you sign a contract.
- Do not take chances. Rent only from licensed dealers. Check references of previous customers or the Better Business Bureau.
- Obtain a copy of the company’s policies regarding cancellations, security deposits and any additional fees.
The Department of Commerce and Insurance works to protect consumers while ensuring fair competition for industries and professionals who do business in Tennessee.
Two major liability trials begin today in federal court in New Orleans.
The claims of toxic formaldehyde emissions from FEMA-supplied trailers for hurricane refugees, and hazardous emissions from Chinese-made drywall, are both the second in a series of “test” trials of multidistrict litigation, in which plaintiffs and defendants change but the complaints remain essentially the same — long-term health problems from hazardous chemicals, and property damage in the drywall complaints, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Hundreds of thousands of such liability suits resulted from the chaotic rebuilding process after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Building materials are blamed for widespread illnesses caused by breathing the toxic fumes.
In addition, the Chinese-made drywall has been blamed for corroding copper and other metal surfaces, causing problems with wiring and plumbing, and ruining household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers.
Tatum and Charlene Hernandez are plaintiffs in the Chinese drywall trial; Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin is the lead defendant. U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon will preside over that bench trial.
Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt will preside over the jury trial in the FEMA trailer trial brought by Lyndon Wright against trailer manufacturer Forest River Inc. and the environmental testing firm Shaw Environmental.
The United States will also be a defendant in this trial, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Because of a last-minute decision by Judge Engelhardt last summer, FEMA was not included as a defendant in the first FEMA trailer trial against Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind.
The complaint to be tried beginning this week, filed in March 2009, claims Forest River supplied trailers to FEMA that contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.
Forest River and other manufacturers supplied tens of thousands of trailers for emergency use after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The trailer makers subsequently faced lawsuits from hurricane victims who said the formaldehyde made them sick.
Company lawyers say the trailers were safe.
On Sept. 24, a jury took just four hours to clear Gulf Stream Coach of such accusations from a family that occupied a trailer made by the company
U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark, has written the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seeking answers to questions which the federal agency has previously ignored regarding the single lot sale of some 15,000 mobile homes and trailers warehoused here, and Ross now has a state ally in Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, according to the Hope (Ark.) Star.
Ross said his questions concerning the Jan. 29 auction have gone unanswered.
“Prior to this auction I, along with the entire Arkansas congressional delegation, sent a letter to GSA (General Services Administration) and FEMA requesting the immediate suspension of this auction until an appropriate disposal plan could be developed,” Ross wrote. “However, this request was ignored and the units sold for $27.4 million, or approximately $1,825 each.”
Ross said he wanted to know why FEMA departed from its typical sale of lots of 200, or individually.
“In comparison to the $1,825 per unit received during the recent auction, I would like to know how much these units were sold for on average when they were sold individually,” he wrote. “Given the current economic climate, I would also like to know the justification for this auction’s immediacy when it could negatively affect manufacturers and consumers in this state and potentially flood the market and collapse an important industry on which many jobs depend.”
Ross also sought the current status of the sale and whether the high bidder, which FEMA has not named, has complied with all the terms of the sale. Ross said last week that he would send the letter before considering other steps he might take, based upon the agency’s response.
Ross’ Feb. 12 letter to W. Craig Fugate, the administrator of FEMA, comes on the heels of an advisory by McDaniel that Arkansans who purchase mobile homes or travel trailers from dealers who acquired them as a result of the bulk sale should be aware of their condition and potential hazards.
“The attorney general predicts that the retail market may soon be flooded with these surplus units which have been stored by FEMA at several locations across the south since shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” McDaniel’s advisory notes.
The attorney general warned of getting something that was not necessarily a “good deal.”
“We expect that these units will be offered to the public in various venues, including the Internet, and at prices which may appear to be deeply discounted,” McDaniel said. “However, a discounted price does not necessarily mean the buyer is getting a good deal, and buyers interested in acquiring a surplus manufactured home or travel trailer need to proceed with caution.”
McDaniel warned about possible lack of maintenance to the units, mold, mildew and water damage which might have occurred, and the possibility of lingering formaldehyde fumes inside the units. He advised retail buyers to ask questions concerning the source of any unit they purchase, and warned that questions of property title, registration and state sales tax payment on the units may be unresolved.
“Proceed with caution, extreme caution, if your are tempted to respond to what appears to be an attractive offer for a travel trailer or manufactured home,” he said.
McDaniel said complaints may be filed with the Public Protection Department of the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office at (501) 682-2341 or (800) 482-8982, or at www.ArkansasAG.gov online.
FEMA has warehousd he units at the Hope Municipal Airport since shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.