The era of the FEMA trailer — a symbol of the prolonged rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina — might be drawing to a close in New Orleans, The Associated Press reported.
Citing the remaining 221 trailers as blight, New Orleans officials have told the last remaining residents to be out by early 2011 or face steep fines.
New Orleans once had more than 23,000 FEMA trailers, and for many people still living in them, they are akin to permanent homes. These residents say they will find it hard to make the city’s deadline. One resident says the city’s notice is “worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.”
Holdouts could face fines of up to $500 a day. A city official says the city will be compassionate in considering each resident’s case but hope to have most trailers removed within three months.
A Missouri trade group of recreational vehicle dealers is questioning the safety of former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers that were auctioned off in Ozark, Mo., last week, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
Sheri Wheelen, president of the Missouri RV Dealers Association, said the association doesn’t stand behind these vehicles and won’t provide service for the trailers.
“We do not consider them safe and they do not comply with the standards the federal government imposes on our manufacturers and yet the federal government is allowing these inferior trailers to be sold,” Wheelen said.
Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for FEMA, declined to comment, saying there isn’t sufficient evidence, such as vehicle identification numbers, to show the trailers were FEMA trailers.
Mike Easterly, the owner of Easterly Auction Co., has said the trailers are FEMA trailers.
A manager at one area business that services trailers said he is hoping to get extra business from people who bought FEMA trailers and are trying to fix them up.
Billy Arnold, assistant manager at Bison Campers in Ozark, said Bison has sold $400 to $500 in parts since Easterly Auction Co. held an auction for 183 trailers Oct. 23 for a company in Marietta, Ga. It was unclear Friday how many of the trailers sold.
“We’re hoping it will give us business all the way through the spring with parts and labor,” Arnold said.
Easterly did not return phone calls Friday.
Potentially harmful levels of chemicals such as formaldehyde have been found in trailers used by FEMA as housing after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Wheelen said FEMA trailers have also had problems with mold and propane leaks. Two Mississippi men were severely burned in a trailer fire in June near Laurel, Miss., after the FEMA trailer that one of them bought exploded with both of them inside, according to news accounts. Fire officials said a propane leak caused the fire.
Wheelen said she looked at the trailers that were for sale in Ozark and noticed many of them didn’t have holding tanks for sewage.
FEMA began disposing of its excess trailers in 2006. The U.S. General Services Administration, the federal government’s purchasing arm, sold off about 120,000 of the trailers, and they are being resold around the country.
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.
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Dozens of trailers, previously owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are scheduled for auction this week in North Augusta, S.C. Local RV dealers say the market is now “flooded” with the trailers, and they want consumers to do their research.
Earl Allen, of CSRA Camperland, says the trailers are simply not designed for recreational travel, even though they are often sold that way. Most of the FEMA units, he adds, do not have onboard water and waste storage tanks. Without those tanks, many state parks will not allow the campers to be used.
The trailer auction is completely legal, and actually facilitated by government wholesalers. However, many of the units have been stored in the Gulf Coast since 2005, and may contain chemical and mold dangers, government reports suggest, WRDW-TV, August, reported.
WRDW was invited to view the trailers during a previous auction, and did notice several areas of mold and rot within the walls of the trailers. Not all units, however, showed outward signs of damage.
“I’d say 90% of these units have some sort of damage on the roof, that is already causing rot, if not, they soon will,” says Allen. “We had a customer come in requesting that we install an awning on his (FEMA) trailer, and we discovered that the roof was rotted in places. We had to tell him,”
The trailers auction and resale for about $2,000 to $6,000 each, lot owners say. At least one used car dealer, who bought two of the units, admits they have been difficult to resell.
Allen says the professional association that represents most of the RV dealers in the area protested the sales before government leaders. Meanwhile, this latest auction is scheduled for this week, with similar auctions happening in several other regional cities.
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.”
The white trailers used to house hundreds of thousands of people following hurricane Katrina are reportedly making a second appearance.
The government banned the sale of the trailers for health reasons, and some fear contractors along the Gulf Coast may be overlooking a potentially dangerous situation, according to WAFB-TV, Baton Rouge, La.
U.S. Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Charlie Melancon, D-La., are trying to put the brakes on contractors who have apparently started selling the campers to oil spill relief workers to use as living quarters.
“It’s stunning on one hand, but not surprising this has been characteristic of everything that has occurred since day one,” said Markey. Melancon says that workers are spending all day in toxic fumes and oil could be returning to trailers that cause a number of health problems.
The trailers have serial numbers and are supposed to bear stickers indicating they were Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) formaldehyde trailers, and buyers are supposed to sign a waiver stating they are aware of the health risks involved.
Melancon and Markey aren’t convinced that has happened. They are worried those identifiers may have been removed from the trailers before they were sold. “It’s not like a mattress where they’ve taken off the warning label,” said Markey. “This is more like a pack of cigarettes that is harmful to people’s health that is now being used to house people’s health.”
When asked about the potential dangers to oil spill cleanup workers living in the trailers, Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Erin Brewer said it is too early to tell. “This is the beginning of the story and it’s not clear to me how long the oil response workers will be in the trailers and what the other risk factors are for health problems,” said Brewer.
The U.S. General Services Administration released a statement Friday evening stating the agency’s Office of Real Property will send an email to travel trailer buyers. It reminds them that they must notify anyone who buys the trailer in the future that it was once a FEMA trailer and that it is against the law to use it as housing.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) travel trailers going to tribal members on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota are intended for recreational use and not for housing purposes, according to U.S. General Services Administration officials in Washington, D.C.
GSA officials also said representatives of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa were alerted about the formaldehyde warning and the limitation of the use of the trailers, the Minot (N.D.) Daily News reported.
Questions have been raised by some tribal members about whether FEMA travel trailers are safe for the health of tribal members who have obtained the trailers. Tribal member Delvin Cree of Dunseith has sent letters to various media including the Minot Daily News, which have been published about concerns over the travel trailers. He said tribal members received the travel trailers for free but had to travel to Mississippi to pick them up or pay someone else to make the trip.
He said he has reports that tribal members on the reservation are living in the travel trailers and also in FEMA mobile homes which have also gone to tribal members.
Going to the oil fields
He said he also has reports of tribal members from Turtle Mountain Reservation renting the travel trailers to people in the oil fields in the New Town and Williston areas.
It is well known that there is a dire need for housing in western North Dakota because of the oil boom.
Richard Marcellais, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said Cree’s letter of concerns has been turned over to Sen. Byron Dorgan’s office in Minot.
Jennifer Bronson, a spokeswoman for Dorgan in his Washington, D.C., office, said Friday (June 25) that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has received a copy of Cree’s letter asking for an investigation. She said Dorgan’s staff members are looking into the matter. Dorgan is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Cree said he was contacted by a Dorgan staff member Friday afternoon.
Cree, who has been researching the concerns with the FEMA travel trailers and FEMA mobile homes for about two months, said he recently accompanied relatives to a lot in Purvis, Miss. He said the lot had about 60 trailers designated for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, where his relatives obtained a travel trailer and brought it back to the reservation. When his relatives picked up the travel trailer at the lot, he said no documents were presented stating there were possible health concerns and/or health hazards. He said a sticker taped on the side window stated the trailer is not to be used for living in but because of the rain the sticker could easily have fallen off. He said only a few of the trailers had such stickers.
He said he observed travel trailers in the lot with mold problems and extensive water damage. “In a few of the trailers, you could fall through the floor,” Cree said. He said tribal representatives had picked out the trailers for tribal members to have.
“The impression I got from these trailers is that they were abandoned by the government and the upkeep was not there. All of these trailers did have some kind of old mildew on the outside. The smell in some were unbearable,” Cree said.
Cree said some of the trailers going to tribal members are “brand new” and others are used. He said reports are that some of the trailers were used by victims of Hurricane Katrina.
GSA on trailers for tribes
The Minot Daily News contacted the administrator’s office of GSA in Washington, D.C., June 18 and queries about the North Dakota tribal members’ concerns about the travel trailers were forwarded to the GSA Public Affairs office.
GSA officials said the travel trailers were made available for federal transfer under GSA’s utilization and donation program. Working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Turtle Mountain Reservation participated in two GSA events in Mississippi where there was an opportunity for them to acquire travel trailers.
“The tribal representatives were alerted about the formaldehyde warning and the limitation on the use of the trailers, and signed the certification statement regarding potential presence of formaldehyde and that they were not to be used for housing,” said GSA officials in a prepared statement provided to The News.
“These trailers are travel trailers and are not manufactured housing units also known as mobile homes. The travel trailers are intended for recreational use, not for housing purposes,” the statement said.
They said GSA and FEMA have been working closely to ensure that potential buyers and users of temporary housing units are made aware of all air quality testing that has taken place.
The statement from GSA to The News also said:
“To make sure that trailers are used in a safe manner and in accordance with the manufacturers’ intended purpose, we have taken the necessary steps to educate and inform potential buyers and users of travel trailers and ensure that the trailers aren’t used or sold as housing. Buyers are required to read documentation prepared by the CDC, FEMA and EPA about formaldehyde and indoor air quality standards related to the purchased travel trailer, and to provide the documentation to any subsequent purchasers. Buyers are also required to sign an agreement that they will not use the trailer for housing, they will not sell the trailer for housing, and they will inform any subsequent purchasers not to use or sell the trailer as housing.”
CDC is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EPA is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
FEMA on tribal trailers
Jerome DeFelice, external affairs specialist with the Department of Homeland Security FEMA Region VIII in Denver, this month also provided The News with a statement regarding the disposition of temporary housing units to tribes in North Dakota.
To those who qualify, FEMA is disposing of excess temporary housing units (i.e. travel trailers and mobile homes) and offering the remainder for sale to the public through GSA auctions, the FEMA statement said.
It also said: “FEMA works closely with the GSA to ensure that potential buyers are made aware of all air quality testing that has taken place. In the case of the travel trailers, buyers must sign a waiver agreeing that the unit will not be used for housing with a notice to this effect placed on the unit itself. Additionally, the units may not be sold by the purchaser for housing in the future.”
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Austin, Texas, could soon create an RV park that houses hundreds of homeless people. The land sits near the airport. It was found unfit to live in because of the noise from airplanes taking off and landing, according to KXAN-TV, Austin.
“We’re now asking the FAA can we use this land for a homeless RV park the sight is ideal because it is not adjacent to a neighborhood and closely connected to mass transit,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez.
However, some are against the proposal saying it could hurt the city. A similar proposal, at a different location, was rejected by the council two years ago.
“I feel like it will promote more homeless people to come to Austin which I wouldn’t prefer,” said Brenna Sura, an Austin resident.
Still, proponents of the homeless RV park say the city has to do something and soon.
“There’s not enough beds each night in the current shelters and there’s not enough affordable housing,” said Martinez.
Mobile Loaves and Fishes would fund the project through private donations and is purchasing some of the FEMA trailers used after Hurricane Katrina.
“The proposal is about 100 trailers and then about 50 fixed cottages,” said Martinez.
Karl James has been homeless the last year and is all for the idea but against the location.
“A lot of people won’t give us bus passes; it’s far to walk out there especially in the day heat of summer,” said James.
The city of Austin owns the land and would lease it to the non-profit organization but would not allow children to live there due to safety concerns. They will also have to consider security, whether to allow alcohol on site and possible surveillance cameras and is just in the early planning phases.
The resolution is expected to pass the city council Thursday.
“It just asks staff to determine whether or not we can use this site,” said Martinez. “We’re not trying to create five star living conditions we are literally trying to get them off of the street.”
The title of hearings Wednesday (April 28) before the House Energy Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection was, “The Public Sales of Hurricane Katrina/Rita FEMA Trailers: Are they Safe or Environmental Time Bombs?”
The bipartisan consensus on the committee seemed to be leaning heavily toward “environmental time bombs,” but now that the General Services Administration has completed the sale of more than 100,000 of the trailers, it is not clear what Congress can do about it, according to NOLA.com
“We’ve seen that there is an unsafe level of formaldehyde in some of these trailers and I don’t think it’s the wisest thing for the federal government to be selling those and having people live in them and experience more health problems,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., a member of the subcommittee. “We’ve got to figure out a better way to handle this … to see if we can unravel this.”
“Unbelievably, these are the same trailers that made thousands of people ill, some severely ill, from exposure to formaldehyde gases and vapors; young children, elderly people and those with serious respiratory conditions, from asthma to bronchitis, inhaled these vapors over long, extended periods of time,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee. “Am I the only one left scratching his head at this outcome?”
But David Garratt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) associate administrator for mission support, defended the sales. He said that the mobile homes, park models and travel trailers returned to FEMA after their use along the Gulf Coast and auctioned off this year at bargain prices, met existing industry standards. And, he said, buyers of the travel trailers — which are the ones that posed the most danger and were never intended to provide long-term housing — had to certify that they understood the formaldehyde risk and that the travel trailers “are not intended to be used as housing.”
“Subsequent owners must continue to similarly inform subsequent buyers for the life of the unit,” said Garratt, though some members of the committee seemed dubious that would always happen.
Garratt estimated the cost to the government of storing and maintaining the previously used units had run close to $130 million a year.
While filmmaker Gabe Chasnoff, who produced and directed “Renaissance Village,” a documentary about the formaldehyde trailers, played a clip Wednesday that included then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s declaration at a congressional hearing in 2008 that, “we are out of the trailer business,” Garratt said that is not the case.
Travel trailers are the only models small enough to be placed on people’s properties while they rebuild and, in future disasters, Garratt said, FEMA will rely on a new inventory of trailers built for FEMA to new higher air-quality standards. And, they will only be placed on properties where the repairs can be completed in a about six months.
At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the formaldehyde fiasco highlighted the inadequacy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to “assess and restrict dangerous chemicals,” power that might have averted “this problem in the first place.”
EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator James Jones testified that EPA’s draft assessment on the dangers of formaldehyde should be released in the next month or so.
But in his testimony, Dr. Corey Hebert, an associate professor of pediatrics at Tulane University Medical Center and the chief medical officer of the Recovery School District, said that in its broadest strokes, the verdict on formaldehyde is already in.
“We know it’s a carcinogen,” said Hebert, who said that the market fails to heed that fact because “this is America, this is capitalism, this is what we do.” Hebert said no trailers should have been resold until any formaldehyde peril was remediated.
Eddie Mercer says he has a deal on wheels.
On Saturday (April 10) at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds in Pensacola, Fla., Mercer will auction off 112 travel trailers that he bought from the government, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
But there is one caveat: The trailers are among the suspected formaldehyde-tainted trailers the federal government bought for Hurricane Katrina victims.
Nationally, environmentalists and consumer advocates are criticizing the government for making the trailers available to the public.
That’s because formaldehyde, a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in the trailer cabinets, walls and furniture, is known to cause sore throats, nosebleeds, scratchy eyes, coughing and even nose and throat cancer.
Mercer, 50, a former car dealer, said there’s nothing wrong with the trailers, and participants in the auction will receive information about formaldehyde.
“They are absolutely fine,” he said. “I bought one for myself for my family.”
Mercer said the trailers he’s auctioning were sitting in Columbia, Miss.
They are up to 32 feet long and include beds, a small bathroom and a small kitchen with a stove, sink and refrigerator.
The government paid between $15,000 and $30,000 for each of them, and they should sell for less than half of that, Mercer said. He wouldn’t say what he paid for them.
Jan Jenkens said she will be looking for the best bargain possible.
“I know I will get a fair deal if I make a decent offer,” she said.
Jenkens wants to take her two grandchildren camping.
“A tent is not going to work for me,” the Cantonment grandmother said. “That is not going to happen.”
Randy Bricker, 45, of Pensacola said he wants a travel trailer to take his 11-, 12- and 14-year-old daughters camping.
He said he went to a travel trailer auction last weekend but didn’t get anything and is hoping to have better luck this weekend.
“Me putting up a tent and sleeping on a cot, that’s not going to happen,” he said.