Rental housing should be abundant enough that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) won’t have to provide trailers to victims of Hurricane Sandy, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said Thursday (Nov. 1).
According to the Homeland Security website, Fugate said FEMA is working to get people in need of shelter into hotels and motels and also assessing who will need longer-term rental assistance during a press call with reporters.
FEMA had already sent out more than $1 million for those programs as of Oct. 31. Those aren’t just approved funds, Fugate said — FEMA has already provided them.
Fugate said he had also been in touch with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has begun to assess needs for interim housing for residents of public housing, especially in Lower Manhattan.
The federal government has also coordinated assistance from utility crews from as far away as California. Transportation Department aircraft will fly some teams and equipment to the East Coast to expedite their arrival, Fugate said.
Additionally, 252 generators from the Army Corps of Engineers had reached hospitals, nursing homes and other large facilities as of Oct. 31, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters.
Hundreds more were en route at that time, she added.
A federal judge gave his final approval Thursday (Sept. 27) to a $42.6 million class-action settlement between companies that made and installed government-issued trailers after hurricanes in 2005 and Gulf Coast storm victims who claim they were exposed to hazardous fumes while living in the shelters.
The Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled from the bench after hearing from attorneys who brokered a deal resolving nearly all remaining court claims over elevated levels of formaldehyde in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Roughly 55,000 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas will be eligible for shares of $37.5 million paid by more than two dozen manufacturers. They also can get shares of a separate $5.1 million settlement with FEMA contractors that installed and maintained the units.
Gerald Meunier, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said the deal provides residents with “somewhat modest” compensation but allows both sides to avoid the expense and risks of protracted litigation.
“Dollar amounts alone do not determine whether a settlement is fair and reasonable,” he said.
Jim Percy, a lawyer for the trailer makers, said Engelhardt would have had to try cases individually or transfer suits to other jurisdictions if the settlement wasn’t reached.
“It was not going to end quickly, and it was going to be even more monumental for all the parties concerned,” he said.
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in building materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen. Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
FEMA isn’t a party to the settlements and had downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008. As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
Only three plaintiffs have opted out of the settlement with the trailer makers. Engelhardt opened the floor to objections during Thursday’s hearing, but nobody spoke up. The judge said he didn’t receive any formal, written objections, either.
Engelhardt presided over three trials for claims against FEMA trailer manufacturers and installers after he was picked in 2007 to oversee hundreds of consolidated lawsuits. The juries in all three trials sided with the companies and didn’t award any damages.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers have accused the trailer makers of using shoddy building materials and methods in a rush to meet FEMA’s unprecedented demand for temporary housing.
Meunier, however, said it was difficult for plaintiffs’ attorneys to prove a link between formaldehyde exposure and residents’ health problems because many trailers couldn’t be tested until months or even years after the fact. Many residents never sought treatment for their symptoms, he added.
“It was both challenging in the legal and factual sense,” he said.
A group of companies that includes Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Forest River Inc., Vanguard LLC and Monaco Coach Corp. will pay $20 million of the $37.5 million settlement with the trailer makers.
Shaw Environmental Inc., Bechtel Corp., Fluor Enterprises Inc. and CH2M Hill Constructors Inc. are among the FEMA contractors that agreed to pay shares of the separate $5.1 million settlement.
Only a handful of formaldehyde-related claims are still pending, including those against FEMA by a group of Texas residents.
Just as the recreational vehicle industry appears to be nearing a resolution to formaldehyde lawsuits, another round of litigation may be brewing.
As reported by the Elkhart Truth, Ridgeland, Miss., attorney Tyler Kent confirmed he and other Gulf Coast lawyers are preparing a civil suit regarding FEMA trailers sold at auction by the U.S. General Services Administration. The plaintiffs are individuals who purchased the units second-hand but were not told the products were from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and are now suffering from a variety of medical ailments.
Kent did not give specifics about the planned court action, saying the law firms were still working on the document and would likely file a complaint in September or October. However, he said based on the extensive research the attorneys have done, they believe they have enough material to move forward and get a remedy for their clients.
To read the entire article in the Elkhart Truth click here.
Four contractors that installed or maintained government-issued trailers for storm victims after Hurricane Katrina have agreed to pay a total of $5 million to resolve claims that the temporary shelters exposed Gulf Coast residents to hazardous fumes, according to court filings Tuesday (May 29).
The documents don’t disclose how much would be individually paid by Shaw Environmental Inc., Bechtel Corp., Fluor Enterprises Inc. and CH2M Hill Constructors Inc. and the companies’ insurers, The Associated Press reported.
The deal is linked to a larger class-action settlement agreement between plaintiffs’ attorneys and several companies that manufactured travel trailers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The proposed settlement with the trailer makers was expanded late Monday to include claims against Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Forest River Inc., Jayco Inc. and Monaco Coach Corp. Financial terms of that part of the deal haven’t been disclosed.
Last month, however, nearly two dozen other FEMA trailer manufacturers agreed to pay a total of $14.8 million to resolve claims over elevated formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers following the 2005 hurricanes. Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in building materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is expected to hold a fairness hearing on the proposed settlement on Sept. 27. If he approves the deal, a group of Texas residents’ claims against FEMA would be the only formaldehyde-related claims that haven’t been settled or dismissed by the judge, according to lead plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier.
Meunier estimates that roughly 60,000 plaintiffs from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi who lived in FEMA trailers after the 2005 hurricanes would be eligible to participate in the settlement.
A class-action settlement agreement has been reached to resolve nearly all the remaining court claims over allegations that government-issued trailers exposed Gulf Coast residents to hazardous fumes after Hurricane Katrina, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney said Monday (May 28)
In a court filing late Monday, plaintiffs’ lawyers and several companies that manufactured Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers after the 2005 storm asked U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to approve an expanded version of a multimillion-dollar deal initially announced in April, The Associated Press reported.
A separate agreement with four FEMA contractors that installed or refurbished trailers will be filed Tuesday, lead plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier told the news service.
Nearly two dozen FEMA trailer makers agreed last month to pay a total of $14.8 million to resolve claims over elevated formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Monday’s expanded settlement agreement includes claims against trailer manufacturers Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Forest River Inc., Jayco Inc. and Monaco Coach Corp. Representatives of the four companies didn’t immediately respond to seeking comment.
FEMA contractors Shaw Environmental Inc., Bechtel Corp., Fluor Enterprises Inc. and CH2M Hill Constructors Inc. also have reached agreements with the plaintiffs’ lawyers, according to Meunier and a lawyer for the contractors.
Contractors’ attorney David Kurtz said the companies are proud of the roles they played in response to Katrina.
“We agree, however, that all of the parties are best served by settling this matter and saving the time and expense of further litigation,” Kurtz added.
The amount of money that would be paid by each of the eight companies wasn’t immediately disclosed.
Residents of Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi who lived in FEMA trailers after the 2005 hurricanes are eligible to participate.
Engelhardt is expected to hold a fairness hearing on the proposed settlement on Sept. 27. If he approves the deal, a group of Texas residents’ claims against FEMA would be the only formaldehyde-related claims that haven’t been settled or dismissed by the judge, Meunier said.
Meunier estimates that roughly 60,000 plaintiffs could benefit from the entire settlement. He said the deal is a “positive development” for residents even if the amount of compensation is lower than many had anticipated when the case started nearly five years ago.
“But I think the outcome here reflects the realities of the case,” Meunier said.
Meunier said the plaintiffs’ lawyers tested a sample of FEMA trailers but couldn’t test every unit occupied by every plaintiff.
“I think that presented a challenge,” he said. “It was our belief that to go on trying thousands of cases with that kind of challenge in presenting the evidence … was not going to be a very satisfactory alternative for the clients.”
Daniel Balhoff, a court-appointed mediator who helped broker the proposed settlement with FEMA trailer makers, said in a court filing Monday that he believes the deal is “fair, adequate and reasonable.”
“The plaintiffs are faced with significant burden of proof issues with respect to causation,” he said. “For many plaintiffs, the manufactured home no longer exists or can no longer be located. Further, many individual plaintiffs faced causation problems due to the fact that they were smokers or had independent bases separate from formaldehyde exposure for their health issues.”
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in building materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen. Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
FEMA, which isn’t a party in the settlement, downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008. As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
The federal agency provided trailers or mobile homes to more than 144,000 families after the hurricanes. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have accused the trailer makers of using shoddy building materials and methods in a rush to meet the agency’s unprecedented demand for temporary housing.
In October 2007, Engelhardt was picked to oversee hundreds of consolidated lawsuits and tens of thousands of related claims. Since then, the case has generated more than 25,000 docket entries and resulted in three trials for individual claims. The juries in all three trials sided with the companies and didn’t award any damages.
The settlement isn’t the first in the litigation. Last year, a group of companies that manufactured mobile homes for FEMA after Katrina agreed to pay $2.6 million to resolve thousands of related claims. Mobile homes are larger and sturdier than travel trailers, which housed the majority of storm victims and are more prone to elevated levels of formaldehyde.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., which supplied FEMA with travel trailers before it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, agreed in 2010 to a settlement resolving about 7,500 to 8,000 claims. Terms of that deal weren’t disclosed.
Engelhardt dismissed claims against FEMA by residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn Engelhardt’s dismissal of the Louisiana claims. The appeals court previously upheld his dismissal of the Mississippi and Alabama claims.
Following settlement negotiations described as “hard fought,” recreational vehicle manufacturers and victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita have reached a significant milestone in their protracted legal battle.
As reported by the Elkhart Truth, several RV companies, many based in Elkhart County, Ind., and attorneys representing Gulf Coast residents filed a proposed settlement agreement which, if approved, could bring an end to countless lawsuits stemming from concerns over formaldehyde. The 220-page document was submitted to the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana Friday and became available Monday.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers working on behalf of the displaced storm victims are pleased with the terms of the proposed settlement. The agreement states, “After years of litigating this case, including the exchange of thousands of documents, the taking of over 100 depositions, extensive motion practice, and participation in a months-long and hard fought negotiation process, the (Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee) has concluded the proposed settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable for the Class.”
Defendants and plaintiffs are asking the court to give preliminary approval to the settlement offer. This will then allow residents to submit a claim or opt-out of the agreement and ultimately lead the way to the court granting or denying final approval at a fairness hearing scheduled for Aug. 1.
RV dealerships have recently been investigated for failing to pass along a required federal disclosure certificate when they resell FEMA units, according to the latest issue of RV Executive Today.
The Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) reminded members that they are legally required to pass along the “Useable Travel Trailer Certificate” notice informing buyers that these FEMA units aren’t intended to be permanent housing.
The RV trailers that FEMA bought after Hurricane Katrina and auctioned off by the General Services Administration (GSA) require this special disclosure at the time of that sale and must be passed to all subsequent buyers.
Dealers should be particularly cautious of trailer trade-ins from 2005 and 2006 and the need to confirm the vehicles’ histories. A customer may “forget” to pass along the required disclosure to the RV dealer when trading in the vehicle for a new RV. RVDA said that the best way to research vehicle history is to run the VIN against the GSA’s database of Katrina trailers or ask the trailer manufacturer for a vehicle’s history.
Not all of the affected FEMA units are white boxy models – some were purchased directly from RV dealer inventory. RVDA said that relying on the vehicle’s title may not be reliable, since Katrina trailers weren’t titled until after their first sale at auction.
A similar issue is developing with oversized park model trailers that FEMA bought more recently and are now being auctioned through the GSA. Park models over 400 square feet must comply with HUD code, and as RVDA understands it, these oversized park models are not built to HUD codes. Customers may be unable to title these vehicles in their state, and they may run afoul of local building codes. Specifically, they may be unable to place these units in a zoned park model RV park.
All oversized compliant and non-compliant park models sold at GSA auctions come with a “Usable Park Model Trailer Certification” that the buyer must sign and pass along to all subsequent purchasers. The certificate disclaims government liability for any future issues arising from these vehicles. Dealers face liability if they fail to pass along the certificate.
Wanda Tiger and her husband needed a new home after a long-term house-sitting arrangement came to an end. But, according to an Associated Press report, for members of their Indian tribe in rural Oklahoma, affordable housing options were few.
Then tribal leaders learned of an attractive offer: Mobile homes that had never been occupied were available from the government almost free. They had stood vacant for years after being rejected as temporary housing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“When you ain’t got nothing, you’re happy with whatever you can get,” said Tiger, a member of the Absentee Shawnee tribe.
After the 2005 hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought thousands of temporary homes for $20,000 to $45,000 each, both mobile homes and travel trailers.
The mobile homes proved impractical in areas where power and water service had been destroyed. And some people living in travel trailers started to fall sick, allegedly because the RVs had high levels of formaldehyde.
Tribes have taken almost 2,000 of the government homes and requested more.
The formaldehyde issue led the government to trash most of the travel trailers or sell them to people who signed papers promising not to live in them.
The mobile homes that remained were parked at FEMA storage centers all over the country, costing the agency millions each year to maintain.
Frustrations erupted Tuesday night (May 24) at a city council meeting in Cordova, Ala., where 200 people turned out for a discussion on the city’s ban of single-wide trailers for relief victims.
The Birmingham News reported that although several people urged the council to abolish the ban, the council meeting was adjourned without any action taken. Mayor Jack Scott told the crowd the council would take the matter under consideration. He said after the meeting that he doubted the council would change the ordinance in a future meeting.
The city’s ordinance, updated in 2008, bans single-wide trailers but permits double-wides in four locations in the city. It allows modular homes to be placed anywhere.
The ordinance blocks tornado survivors who lost their homes in the April 27 tornado from being able to live in single-wide manufactured homes that are offered temporarily for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Scott has said the ordinance was imposed to keep property values up and to encourage people to put houses on vacant lots.
People held signs against the ordinance. One read: “Trailor does not = trash.”
Scott has encouraged survivors to look into modular homes as an option.
Karen Robbins, a Cordova resident, said she had checked into modular homes and found the cheapest one costs $105,000.
“How many people in Cordova can afford $105,000?” she asked. Her question drew applause.
Scott responded: “You might have your sights set too high.”
Fred Porter, a member of the city’s zoning board, told the crowd that anyone who lived in a single-wide trailer before the storm would be grandfathered under the ordinance. He said they must have a permit before placing another trailer on the spot.
The mayor said he was pleased with the meeting because people were allowed to vent their frustrations.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it has approved providing almost 250 mobile homes for survivors of last month’s tornadoes, but says only 35 are occupied so far.
According to the Associated Press, FEMA spokeswoman Denise Everhart says that before units can be delivered and occupied, a site must be cleared of debris and deemed suitable. She says septic, power and water services must be established and the unit must be anchored according to FEMA’s guidelines.
She says the rules explain why FEMA prefers to find rental space for those displaced by storms.
Don Griffin, deputy housing task force branch director for FEMA, says FEMA standards are generally tougher than state rules on requirements such as the space between piers, the size of the footers supporting piers and the straps tying down the units.
Dozens of trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) are now on the ground in Alabama. They are set up as temporary housing for people who lost their homes in the April 27 tornadoes. However, none of them are in the hard-hit city of Cordova and it is causing a lot of tension.
According to a report by FOX 6 News in Birmingham, some residents are upset because they have nowhere to live, but are not being allowed to get one of the FEMA units. The issue is a Cordova city ordinance which prohibits certain types of mobile homes. The mayor says double-wide trailers are allowed in certain areas of the city but the FEMA trailers are singlewide.
Residents say those who lost their homes cannot afford the utilities and other expenses associated with bigger double-wide mobile homes.
Mayor Jack Scott says he is looking at other options like finding abandoned homes that may be available to rent or buy. He is is also bringing in a modular home expert.
Scott says he understands the need for new places to live, but he fears with the FEMA units Cordova will turn into a trailer park and hurt the future of the city.
“We want other people, young people, professional people to came here,” said Scott. “We don’t want them in a trailer. We want them to build here.”
Some Cordova residents do not share the mayor’s sentiments on the trailers.
“They lost everything,” said resident Judy Fielding. “They can’t put doublewides in here because they can’t afford the utilities. That is what we face in Cordova. We need FEMA’s help.”
Mayor Scott says he is fearful mobile homes will bring down property values.
This issue is expected to be a hot topic at the Cordova City Council meeting on Tuesday night.
Thousands of Southerners who lost everything last month to a pack of killer twisters will need new homes after they move out of shelters and relatives’ spare bedrooms, but the types of housing they find will vary widely depending on where they live.
AP reported that the communities that caught the brunt of the tornadoes range from rural crossroads in Mississippi to mid-sized Alabama cities like Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. Places like Smithville, Miss., had few rental houses or apartments to begin with; hard-hit Birmingham has a much larger stock that’s ready for almost immediate occupancy.
Unlike after Hurricane Katrina, when crews set up thousands of nearly identical campers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) all over coastal Mississippi and southern Louisiana, officials say different areas hit by the tornadoes will require varying solutions.
“To say one is going to fit all doesn’t work,” FEMA deputy administrator Richard Serino said during a stop last week in Alabama. “It’s going to require different options.”
Singlewide mobile homes already are parked in the northwest Alabama town of Phil Campbell, which was slammed hard and had little spare housing to begin with. The city of Tuscaloosa, meanwhile, doesn’t allow manufactured homes, meaning houses, apartments and new construction are likely to be key.
All across Alabama, state and federal officials already have identified thousands of apartments that are available and could be rented to storm victims.
Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan said the Federal Housing Administration also has located about 1,000 foreclosed homes that could be available for families to purchase with government assistance in Alabama, and similar work is going on in Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, which also were hit in the April 27 outbreak.
Final decisions about long-term housing will be up to local leaders and individuals, Donovan said, and one size won’t fit all. The government learned that lesson after Katrina, he said.
“This is not about the federal government coming and telling a community what it should look like. This is about the local vision for the community with our help and partnership in achieving that,” Donovan said while touring a neighborhood in Birmingham still littered with bricks, overturned vehicles and splintered rafters. “In some cases that means rebuilding what was there, and in other cases that means coming back and building something new.”
The National Weather Service and state emergency officials are still tallying how many homes were destroyed when waves of tornadoes mowed through the South, killing hundreds in seven states as entire neighborhoods were wiped out in some areas. Alabama took the hardest hit: The state said 236 people were dead at last count, and 42 of the state’s 67 counties have been approved to receive disaster assistance.
In Mississippi, state emergency management spokesman Jeff Rent said officials will help tornado victims secure mobile homes from FEMA in hard-hit Monroe County, where 15 people died and dozens of homes and businesses were damaged. The challenge is finding suitable sites for the mobile homes, especially in hard-hit areas like Smithville, which was littered with debris, Rent said. In Bertie County, N.C., residents left homeless by a mid-April tornado outbreak are living in FEMA trailers.
The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, said a task force considering long-term housing already has met twice. He said it’s still unclear what the housing solutions might look like by this fall, when most if not all of the storm debris should be removed.
“Not only do we want to get (victims) in a safe structure for the short term, we want to get them in a permanent place, so I think you’re going to see a number of different options through the state,” Faulkner said. “We want to make sure that everything is on the table and that we do this right from the start and meet the ultimate goal of getting them into a permanent structure as soon as possible.”
Relief is coming to some storm survivors, who were left homeless following the devastating tornadoes last month in the South.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says the first temporary housing units have been delivered to Alabama residents left without a home after the recent storms, WHNT-TV, Huntsville, Ala., reported.
Phil Campbell was provided with 11 of the units this weekend, with at least 30 more of the travel trailers expected to arrive soon. Franklin County officials say the manufactured housing is going up just outside the Phil Campbell city limits, inside a trailer park.
Those living in the units will have their cases reviewed each month to determine their eligibility for continued FEMA assistance. Survivors can live in the units up to 18 months.
The number to contact to register for FEMA Disaster Assistance is (800) 621 FEMA (3362).
Lack of adequate housing on Native American tribal lands has become so critical that tribes have been acquiring mobile homes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The shelters, meant to be utilized during disasters, are being converted into living quarters for Native American families, New America Media reported.
When FEMA announced that it would give tribes 1,000 mobile homes unused after the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, applications from tribal governments poured in despite ominous news reports suggesting that the housing units might contain sickening levels of formaldehyde.
R. David Paulison, FEMA administrator from 2005 to 2009, told the National Congress of American Indians that 110 tribes requested more than 5,500 mobile homes. They turned out to be different from the post-Katrina “travel trailers,” the kind that are typically hooked to vehicles for vacation trips and that tests had shown emitted excessive formaldehyde, causing respiratory problems in some occupants.
Through 2009, 1,300 mobile homes were given to 88 tribes, which had to pay transportation and hookup costs, FEMA officials said in an email. Still, even more demand existed in Indian country for such impermanent housing, which most Americans would consider a last resort.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which announced in February the availability of another 500 mobile homes, is transferring 549 from FEMA’s unused inventory. Ninety-five tribes had requested more than 3,000.
“There’s so much unmet housing need in Indian country, any assistance with housing is always appreciated,” says Mellor Willie, a Navajo who is executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council. “The 500 homes alone could just barely meet the needs of one of our larger tribes.”
On tribal lands, where about 40% of Native Americans live, the shortage of decent housing is worse than in impoverished inner cities. The most recent estimates, from 1996 and 2003, indicate that between 90,000 and 200,000 units are needed to house Native Americans who are homeless or live in overcrowded or substandard dwellings. Forty percent of housing on reservations is considered inadequate, compared with 6% nationwide.
Because the 565 federally recognized tribes ceded their ancestral territory to the United States, the federal government holds tribal lands in trust and provides nearly all housing on reservations, primarily through targeted HUD programs. In 2003, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights described housing situations there as “a quiet crisis” and called for increased federal funding for Native American housing.
Instead, when inflation is taken into account, the spending power of that annual funding has continued to decline, as was happening at the time of the commission’s report. HUD funding for Native American housing has hovered around $700 million a year for more than a decade, except for an additional $500 million in stimulus funds in fiscal 2009.
Asked why the funding decline has persisted despite urgent needs, Willie says, “The American government and American people take a blind eye to the nation’s first Americans.”
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., saw photos of thousands of FEMA’s unused mobile homes stored near the airport at Hope, Ark., and sponsored legislation in 2006 that authorized giving surplus units to tribal governments.
“It was a good effort to provide housing in places where there’s a desperate need for housing options,” says Perry Plumart, a spokesman for Johnson. “That housing need still exists.”
FEMA had purchased 144,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and park models for its disaster response to Katrina, but the agency’s regulations and local rules prohibited using them in flood zones, which cover most of southeastern Louisiana.
Johnson initially said 2,000 of the new, furnished three-bedroom homes with a life span of 30 years would be available to tribes. FEMA later reduced that number to 1,000, the agency’s estimate of how many were ready to be transported in 2007.
News reports of high formaldehyde levels in what media vaguely called “trailer” homes led Johnson to seek assurances from FEMA that the mobile homes he had requested were safe. Congressional hearings and federal officials clarified that the homes had to meet HUD safety standards for formaldehyde, which is used to pressure-treat wood products, while the “travel trailers” and “park models” bought by FEMA did not.
Between 2007 and 2009, 1,300 of the mobile homes were transferred to Native American tribes, which paid several thousand dollars to transport each unit, hook it to utilities and prepare a home site. Tribal governments were allowed to use HUD block grants to cover those costs.
Recipients include the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico, Standing Rock Sioux in North and South Dakota, Oglala Sioux in South Dakota and Cherokee in Oklahoma.
“They’ve been working out great. I haven’t heard of any real problems,” says Alvin Benally, executive director of the Mescalero Apache Housing Authority, which received at least 21 mobile homes from FEMA and another four in April from HUD.
Some northern tribes have experienced a problem that FEMA had cautioned about — most of the mobile homes are not designed for cold, snowy winters.
“They’re not insulated well enough for the North and South Dakota weather,” says Johnelle Leingang, an emergency coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux. “Other than that, we’re grateful for them.”
Leingang says residents of the 26 mobile homes — who had been flooded out of their previous residences — have faced high electricity bills for heating, and some have experienced frozen and bursting pipes. While some residents fault the federal government, she said the Standing Rock government should have paid more attention to climate-related design issues.
“We needed them, and the last thing on our mind was, ‘Are they insulated?’ ” Leingang says.
The Standing Rock Sioux received 26 mobile homes and the Mescalero Apache at least 25. The Oglala Sioux and Cherokee each received 12. The Oglala had requested 300 for their Pine Ridge Reservation.
To help address the broader housing shortage, the National American Indian Housing Council has asked Congress to increase funding next year to $845 million, enough to compensate for inflation’s effects. The request runs counter to the push by conservative House Republicans to cut such discretionary spending programs.
But Willie also hopes to attract private investment to build new housing on tribal land.
Traditionally, banks have been reluctant to make mortgages on reservations because the borrowers cannot own the land on which the home would sit. A potential homeowner can lease a home site, but the U.S. Department of the Interior secretary must approve every lease. That process can take from two months to two years, Willie says, longer than banks are usually willing to keep financing available.
Legislation pending in Congress would eliminate the bottleneck by authorizing each tribal government to grant leases on its reservation after the Interior secretary has approved its review procedures. The Navajo Nation already has that authority under a 2000 federal law that applies only to that tribe, whose reservation straddling Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is the nation’s largest.
Tribes could lease land for residential and commercial properties, possibly stimulating creation of a real estate market that does not exist today.
“This fix could change the face of how economic development is done on tribal trust land,” Willie says.
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.