For the first time since Hurricane Katrina left tens of thousands of families living in FEMA trailers, a federal jury heard allegations Monday (Sept. 14) in New Orleans that the government-issued shelters exposed Gulf Coast storm victims to hazardous formaldehyde fumes.
A New Orleans woman suing trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc. claims her son’s asthma was aggravated by elevated levels of formaldehyde in their trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the Associated Press.
Gulf Stream’s own tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in its trailers in early 2006, but the company failed to warn plaintiffs Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, about the risks, said plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee.
“What you don’t know can hurt you, and this case proves that 100 times over,” Buzbee said in his opening statements Monday.
Buzbee and company lawyers urged jurors to consider different standards for what could be safe levels of formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
Buzbee said Alexander and Cooper were exposed to formaldehyde levels that were multiple times higher than those determined to be safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock said formaldehyde levels in the plaintiffs’ trailer were many times lower than standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“They are citing to you the wrong standard,” Weinstock told the jury of five men and four women.
The federal government isn’t a defendant in this first “bellwether” trial, although it has been sued in hundreds of other cases over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled last month that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s claims against the government. Plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to appeal that ruling.
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 downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008.
“I believe this will be the most important case that will be tried in Louisiana this year,” Buzbee said.
Jurors heard videotaped testimony from former ATSDR official Christopher De Rosa, who was one of the government’s top toxicologists. In an e-mail to his superiors, De Rosa had warned of signs that formaldehyde in trailers threatened to become a “public health catastrophe.”
During his taped testimony earlier this year, De Rosa choked up when he recalled worrying that children were suffering because government scientists weren’t reacting quickly enough to formaldehyde concerns.
“And how people could stand by and do the politically expedient thing is beyond me,” he said.
Alexander and Cooper, now 12 years old, moved into the trailer in May 2006 after Katrina damaged their home in eastern New Orleans. They lived in the unit for 19 months, moving out shortly after Alexander learned of formaldehyde concerns.
Erika Alexander, Cooper’s 15-year-old sister, testified that her eyes and nose burned and she started getting nosebleeds when they moved into the trailer. She said her mother “didn’t know what was the smell or what was going on.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers accuse Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream and other trailer makers of using shoddy building materials and methods in a rush to meet FEMA’s unprecedented demand for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes.
But the trailer occupied by Alexander and Cooper was produced in 2004.
Weinstock said FEMA has been purchasing trailers from Gulf Stream since 1992 and didn’t document a formaldehyde complaint about one of its units until 2006.
“FEMA knew more about what was going on than Gulf Stream,” Weinstock said.
Weinstock, who said Cooper’s asthma was first diagnosed when he was 3, denied that the boy’s condition worsened after he moved into the trailer. Alexander took her son off a steroid treatment for asthma during a two-year period before Katrina, he added.
Weinstock also said Alexander didn’t mention her formaldehyde concerns to one of Cooper’s doctors until April 2009, after they had been picked to be the first trial’s plaintiffs.
Fluor Enterprises had a contract to install FEMA trailers. Charles Penot, a lawyer for Fluor, said the company hired expert subcontractors to haul and install the units.
“That’s what FEMA hired us to do. That’s what Fluor did,” he said.
Hard times are hardly new in Pass Christian, Miss., but four years after Hurricane Katrina tore this area apart, Ritamarie Northrop still calls a FEMA travel trailer home. And she’s one of about 2,100 Gulf Coast families suffering the very same fate, as CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reported recently.
“I gave up on FEMA,” Northrop said. “You know, I could have appealed, appealed, appealed. I gave up.”
At the height of the recovery, 143,000 families in Louisiana and Mississippi found refuge from the storm in such trailers. Now two years after FEMA began moving people out of the trailers, case workers tell CBS News the thousands left in the trailers aren’t trying to beat the system; they are victims of a system that’s proved incapable of helping them get out.
Just ask Kendall Deschamp.
“Oh it’s miserable,” he said of living in the trailer. “Bottom line: it’s miserable.”
A disabled state highway worker, Deschamp collects just $1,368 a month in benefits. That’s not enough, he says, to afford the sheetrock and new hot water heater he needs for the permit allowing him to move back into his four-bedroom home, which stands just a few tantalizing feet away.
What would he need to get the job of repairing his old home done, top to bottom?
“Probably a couple thousand and a day’s time,” Deschamp said. That’s it.
Deschamp says he called FEMA countless times for assistance, only to get an endless game of bureaucratic run-around that has beaten him down.
“They give me the same answers: ‘You need to call this person.’ I call this person and they tell me I need to call this person.”
Kandy Moran, a state social worker, says all she needs is a bit more time — and money — to fix her home. FEMA’s answer: A threat of eviction or temporary housing in the next county.
“My grandparents gave us this property,” Moran said. “So when FEMA approaches me and says, ‘Kandy, we can put you in a rental.’ — I can’t leave my home.”
Today the remaining travel trailers serve as a symbol of a recovery gone wrong: A hurricane of empty promises, chaos and coverup; a system that remains in the words of one FEMA worker on the ground in Mississippi, “One big, disgusting mess.”
CSB News wanted to ask FEMA about what’s being done for folks like this. But FEMA told us to call another federal agency, Housing and Urban Development, saying that, as of June, HUD had taken over long-term housing of disaster victims.
“We’re working with the state to remove all the bureaucratic red tape to make sure that those final families can be serviced by those programs as well,” HUD Senior Adviser Fred Tombar told CBS News
Yet so many of those final families say the last thing they want is another program. Rather, they want someone to actually listen, to offer the help they really need, and to close the doors on their trailers once and for all.
All the fears expressed by the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors in Poplarville, Miss., about someone purchasing former FEMA recreational park trailers and offering them for sale locally has come true, according to the Picayune (Miss.) Item.
Now their biggest concern is someone buying one of the trailers and trying to live in it. “We need people to understand they can’t be used for permanent residences,” said Anthony Hales, board president. “They do not come up to HUD standards.”
According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lead public affairs officer Jim Foster, the trailers are more than likely ones purchased through the General Services Administration’s auction website. “FEMA only sells through the GSA auction website,” said Foster, adding that the site indicates where the trailers are located. “They are sold individually or by the lots.”
Foster declined to say if FEMA was investigating the sale of the trailers at a site in nearby Nicholson, Miss., and the GSA website no longer lists any of the trailers for sale.
The owner of the trailers that are being sold in Nicholson said he purchased 50 of them through the GSA auction website and said he makes sure he tells people that the trailers are for camps or storage only and not to be lived in. “I do not want to deteriorate our community,” said Darryle Whitfield, “I tell anyone interested that these are not to live in. These are strictly for deer camps, fishing camps or storage units.”
Whitfield admits that he has had “only three people” indicate they were considering purchasing the trailers to live in.
Business had been brisk, Whitfield said, though he says he had done very little advertising and was amazed at the number of people interested in purchasing one.
“It is amazing of the number of people who want them,” said Whitfield, adding that he has had people from as far away as Virginia and Texas buying the trailers. “They’ve been from Virginia, Missouri, all over Texas,” he said, adding that several of the trailers have been sold for use along the Gulf Coast and in northern Mississippi.
Even so, the sale of the trailers has the supervisors stymied on how to prevent someone from purchasing one of them and moving it in place of a FEMA trailer without the county’s knowledge. “FEMA has questioned us several times since day one and has asked about making them permanent residences,” Hales said. “They said they would abide by our regulations.”
The county so far has refused to set a deadline for residents still living in FEMA mobile homes and travel trailers to be out of them or to be cited for living in housing that does not meet county codes. FEMA cannot force someone to move out of the travel trailers, instead having to rely on local officials to enforce zoning and code regulations.
In Pearl River County, as of July 16, there were 111 families living in FEMA housing units. Of those, 79 were in travel trailers. Harrison County has 172 total in FEMA housing, with 116 in the travel trailers, and Hancock County has 74 with 60 in the campers.
Admitting that the FEMA travel trailers within the county are not hard-wired electrically, thus making it possible that someone could try and switch the trailers and not apply for any permits, County Planning & Building director Ed Pinero said his office was taking steps to prevent someone from trying to place one of the campers in place of a FEMA trailer without the county’s knowledge.
“We are in the process of contacting FEMA so they can make us aware of when a camper has been moved (out) so someone can not move one in,” said Pinero. “It is not legal for one of these to be used as your permanent residence.”
Pinero said that the sale of the trailers could pose a problem not just for Pearl River County, located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, but for several other Mississippi counties.
“These are going to be a problem for the southern six (counties) because a lot of these are going to be sold,” said Pinero, adding that to date, no one had applied for any permits for one. “We will stay on top of this,” he said. “These travel trailers are not permanent housing and can not be used as such.”
In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow to address early signs of formaldehyde problems in emergency housing and overstated actions it was taking to address the problem, according to a report released Thursday (July 23) by a federal inspector general.
The highly critical 80-page report paints the picture of an agency that was overly concerned with its image to the detriment of the public, according to CNN International. FEMA, the report says, reacted to the formaldehyde health threat only after media attention “grew to disturbing levels” and once delayed testing so the agency could “develop a public communications strategy” for the public and the media.
Although federal tests found formaldehyde in emergency housing in October of 2005, just two months after Katrina, most of the tests weren’t done until two years later, during winter when formaldehyde levels are lowest, the report says.
“Because of the delays, the test results may have underestimated the extent of formaldehyde exposure that residents had experienced,” it says.
The report is the latest to address the federal government’s response to Katrina and Rita, when FEMA faced the biggest challenge in the agency’s history, trying to relocate many of the estimated 700,000 people displaced by the Gulf Coast storms. Some people were housed in hotels and apartments. But others were placed in more than 200,000 travel trailers, mobile homes and recreational park trailers.
Almost immediately, some residents began complaining of health problems, attributing it to formaldehyde, a strong-smelling gas that federal authorities say is believed to cause cancer.
In October 2005, shortly after the storms, federal officials cautioned government workers to limit their time in travel trailers, but a similar warning was not give to the trailers’ new inhabitants. The following March, a Biloxi, Mississippi, television station reported on a local couple who were having formaldehyde problems with their FEMA trailer.
The inspector general’s report chronicles initial efforts to address the problem.
“FEMA officials did make some attempts to identify the extent of the formaldehyde problem, but they did so by trying to get an accurate tally of complaints from occupants rather than testing occupied units,” the report says.
The inspector general’s report says that, in hindsight, a number of factors created a “perfect storm” for development of formaldehyde problems after Katrina. One prime factor, the report said, was that before Katrina and Rita, “complaints about formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers had not surfaced and, therefore, FEMA officials were unaware that this should have been an issue of concern.”
Among other factors:
- All of the units were some form of manufactured housing, which tend to have more manufactured wood products that can emit the gas.
- Most of the trailers were hurried from factories to the Gulf, and didn’t have time to release dangerous gases before being occupied.
- The trailers were placed in hot, humid climates, increasing formaldehyde levels.
- High numbers of children, the elderly and people with prior health problems were living in FEMA trailers. All three groups have heightened sensitivity to formaldehyde.
The report was released by Richard Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is FEMA’s parent department.
In the report, FEMA officials said the document “does not adequately emphasize the compelling fact that there were no established formaldehyde standards for travel trailers.” The inspector general agreed that there is a lack of standards.
In a statement Thursday, FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said FEMA “agrees with the Inspector General’s findings” and has already made great progress in developing policies and actions to address concerns about formaldehyde emissions.
“As a result, FEMA and our partners are far better positioned to respond to the temporary housing needs of disaster survivors than we were several years ago.
Among other things, FEMA is testing several new forms of relocatable housing at a site in Maryland. It also is requiring manufacturers to have third-party testers conduct air quality testing to ensure units comply with new specifications.
The flood of formaldehyde litigation against travel trailer manufacturers who provided emergency housing after hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast in 2005 rose noticeably higher this month in Baton Rouge, La., federal court as 16 new suits were filed in a two-week period by hundreds of former or current trailer occupants, according to The Advocate, Baton Rouge.
Those plaintiffs say in their suits that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided them trailers in the Baton Rouge area after the hurricanes wrecked their homes.
Scores of manufacturers are named as defendants in those suits.
The New Orleans attorney for the plaintiffs is Lawrence J. Centola Jr., who did not return repeated phone calls to his office last week seeking comment on the development.
Another attorney and an environmentalist said they believe this second surge of complaints resulted from a year-old report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That report reveals that formaldehyde levels in some of the travel trailers were six times greater than “the level at which health effects have been described in sensitive persons.”
CDC officials noted the National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program does not list formaldehyde as a known cancer agent, but classifies the substance as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen in humans.”
The CDC also noted that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (AARC) concluded five years ago that formaldehyde is “carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.”
The IARC believes formaldehyde causes cancer of nasal and other air passages in humans, CDC officials said in their report.
Baton Rouge lawyer Winston Decuir Jr., who is not involved in the formaldehyde suits, said the public release of the CDC report could be argued to have begun the one-year deadline for trailer residents to file suits for formaldehyde damages.
Under Louisiana law, “prescription” (known as the statute of limitations in other states) begins when someone becomes aware that he or she has been injured by another person or entity, Decuir explained.
“Generally, the prescriptive period is one year from the date the person becomes aware of it or should have become aware of it,” said Decuir, who has extensive experience in federal court in Baton Rouge.
“Prescription cannot run against a person who is not aware of the problem,” Decuir said. “If you’re unaware that formaldehyde is in the trailer, a civil suit is still possible once you know there is a problem.”
Wilma Subra, a New Iberia-based environmental consultant, is not working with any of the attorneys in the formaldehyde litigation.
Subra, who holds master’s degrees in microbiology and chemistry from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said she is convinced the CDC report of July 2008 lit the fuse for this month’s explosion of civil suits.
“They finally admitted that there are health problems associated with formaldehyde,” Subra said.
“It’s in the composite boards, the plywood and particle board,” said Subra, who often works with community groups seeking information about environmental hazards. “And the glue often is the source of much of the formaldehyde.”
She said the hurricane homeless felt for years that state and federal officials “ignored their complaints that they were made ill by the trailers.”
The federal government is a defendant in massive, ongoing formaldehyde litigation in federal court in New Orleans.
In the merging of dozens of those suits into one case, attorneys for FEMA and the manufacturers and other contractors who worked on the trailers deny responsibility for any formaldehyde damages.
Attorneys for both sides of that litigation did not return calls made to their offices last week for comment.
Subra continues to see signs of progress, though.
“The big thing is the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at what quantities of formaldehyde are in the boards,” Subra said.
She said the EPA is considering adoption of California’s tougher limits on formaldehyde levels in wood products.
“In California, you know what you’re buying,” Subra said. “It’s labeled.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is sending out 1,385 rebate letters to 2005 hurricane victims who paid more than $5 for their federally issued trailers or mobile homes.
Last month, the Obama administration announced that, as part of efforts to avoid large-scale evictions of people still in the units, they’d allow for recreational park trailers or park model trailers to be purchased for $1 and mobile homes for $5, according to the Associated Press.
As a matter of fairness, the administration said it would offer rebates to those who’d previously paid more.
FEMA says the average range of cost paid for park models and mobile homes prior to the announcement was $8,500-$16,000.
Smaller travel trailers — over which concerns have been raised about formaldehyde fumes — are not eligible for purchase.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ignored the law and misused millions of dollars to build two warehouses after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to government investigators.
Some of the money FEMA misused should have gone toward Katrina victims in Louisiana, according to a Homeland Security Inspector General report obtained by The Associated Press. The report is expected to be released today (June 25). “FEMA had no authority to use appropriated funds to construct the two buildings,” the investigators said, adding that the agency violated a prohibition against agreeing to spend money without congressional authority.
In the summer of 2006, FEMA spent more than $7 million on two warehouses the agency said it needed to repair trailers and mobile homes used by disaster victims. One of the warehouses was paid for from federal disaster relief fund, which investigators say is not permitted. The other warehouse was paid for with proceeds from sales of travel trailers and mobile homes – also not allowed.
The report says senior officials at FEMA rejected the proposals for these warehouses, but they were built anyway.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said this report confirms his ongoing concerns about FEMA’s lax contracting policies.
“It shows, in this instance, FEMA’s disregard for the law,” said Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security committee. “This is another example of FEMA gone wild.”
After the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, FEMA set up 12 sites to store emergency housing units. Once hurricane victims left the disaster housing, the units were moved to these storage sites to be cleaned, repaired and refurbished. FEMA wanted to put up maintenance buildings at two of the sites – Selma, Ala., and Cumberland, Md., the report said.
FEMA officials told the inspector general that senior agency officials “disallowed” the proposals to build these sites, but “eventually the projects were approved and funded,” the report said.
The Cumberland building was delivered without electricity, lighting or other utilities and couldn’t even be used for repairs, the report said.
FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said he could not comment on a report that hasn’t been released.
But, he said, “FEMA does not tolerate wasteful spending and is committed to making sure that any past mistakes are not repeated.”
An iconic symbol of Hurricane Katrina goes up for public auction today (June 17) as the federal government moves to rid itself of dozens of travel trailers that became the home of storm victims – sometimes for years.
Beginning at 5 p.m. today, 117 Katrina-era travel trailers will be auctioned off to the public by the U.S. General Services Administration. The trailers are on display at the state Department of Finance and Administration’s (DFA) surplus property site on Mississippi 468 just south of the Pearl city limits, according to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger.
“Some of them don’t look like they have been lived in,” said Missy Elmore, a DFA project officer.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed more than 120,000 travel trailers and mobile homes to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in the weeks and months following the August 2005 arrival of Hurricane Katrina. While mobile homes had been used in past recovery efforts, Katrina was the first time such a large number of recreational campers had been used as emergency housing.
FEMA endured harsh criticism over the operation, initially because the trailers arrived late and often in disrepair. Later, FEMA was forced to respond to complaints of persistent respiratory complaints from many people living inside them.
In August 2007, FEMA halted deployment and sale of the travel trailers as temporary housing. Nearly a year later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a final report showing higher-than-normal levels of formaldehyde in many of the trailers.
Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre said he thinks the travel trailers will be remembered fondly, despite their shortcomings.
“They were a lot better than what we had at the time, which was nothing. They served a purpose. We went from sleeping on the floor or the ground or tents to those,” he said. “Had it not been for (the trailers), I have no idea what we would have done.”
Almost all of the trailers on the Coast have been removed as the fourth anniversary of the storm approaches.
FEMA officially ended its emergency housing program for Katrina last month. Just over 508 travel trailers are still in use on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The auction for the Mississippi trailers, which will be conducted online at gsaauctions.gov, is not the first and will not be the last of the federal government’s attempts to divest itself of the campers. So far, FEMA has auctioned off 853 travel trailers and sold another 636 as scrap.
Dozens of trailers not in the new lot already are listed on the site for sale in Mississippi, and hundreds are for sale in Maryland with bids ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per trailer. The bidding pages for the trailers bear red-letter warnings that they may not have been tested for formaldehyde.
The trailers going on sale today that have been tested for unsafe levels of formaldehyde will have paperwork stating that.
Regardless, buyers will be presented with a warning from the federal government that the campers should not be used for housing.
Elmore said a number of Katrina trailers already have found new homes around the state.
“A bunch of small-town police departments bought them and used them as mobile command centers,” she said.
Mike Frizsell, a DFA property officer and co-curator of the trailer auction, said some small towns around the state are using them as polling locations for local elections. But there are just too many of them to remain in governmental service.
“We’ve had these for so long that the federal government said we could go ahead and sell them,” Elmore said.
Elmore said she expects a lot of the former disaster shelters will find new life at fishing and hunting camps.
“I’ve already had about 20 calls this morning, she said Tuesday.
Not all of the trailers are fit for resale, Elmore said. One trailer was returned with a large hole cut out of the wall above the tub, prompting federal official to ask the resident what happened, she said.
“He said, ‘I cut the hole in there so I could fill up the tub so my horse could drink,'” she said.
Perhaps one or two could be saved for an eventual Hurricane Katrina museum. Favre said that probably is the best use for them.
For the next hurricane, Favre said he hopes the federal government will deploy housing similar to the modular Mississippi cottages that came in small numbers late in the relief effort.
“The cottages were intended to be a pilot program for the next one to see whether it would be a better solution,” he said. “Even the smallest one is much more comfortable than a travel trailer.”
One of the many symbols of hurricanes Katrina and Rita – FEMA’s large fleet of mostly white travel trailers that became home to tens of thousands in south Louisiana – might be leaving nearly everywhere along the Gulf Coast, except Baton Rouge.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is beginning the process of reducing its inventory of more than 120,000 travel trailers and mobile homes, said Manuel Broussard, a FEMA spokesman.
The decision to get rid of the trailers is based on finances – it’s costing FEMA about $133 million annually to store the trailers, he said.
The federal General Services Administration will handle either donating, transferring or selling the trailers and mobile homes to federal agencies, state agencies and finally at public auction, Broussard said.
The process will begin this week when 300 of the 26,000 travel trailers and mobile homes stored at FEMA’s site at Lottie are first offered to other federal agencies, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
But the 3,091 travel trailers, recreational park trailers and mobile homes stored at FEMA’s staging facility on North Sherwood Forest Drive and Choctaw Drive in Baton Rouge are scheduled to stay where they are, at least for now, Broussard said.
“We want to use this site as a primary point of distribution in case they are needed in another emergency,” Broussard said.
Broussard said FEMA plans to keep only about 4,000 travel trailers and mobile homes.
“The 4,000 that we keep will be ones that are in pristine condition,” Broussard said. “They will only need to be sanitized before they’re used again.”
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita proved to be unprecedented after FEMA provided 143,000 trailers and mobile homes to house hurricane evacuees across the Gulf Coast, Broussard said.
About 92,000 of those travel trailers and mobile homes were given to Louisiana residents left without homes after the two hurricanes struck only weeks apart in 2005.
When the agency began its temporary housing program in late 2005, FEMA said it would only provide the emergency shelter for up to 18 months.
“But because of the magnitude of the disaster, it kept getting extended and it needed to be extended,” Broussard said. “It wouldn’t have been fair or honorable to just end it.”
After nearly four years, there are still about 4,500 FEMA trailers in use on the Gulf Coast with 2,300 of those in Louisiana, Broussard added.
“Those are primarily on private home sites where homeowners are wrapping up rebuilding,” Broussard said. “And those trailers are being picked up at a rapid pace.”
FEMA’s plans to downsize its inventory calls for getting rid of 104,000 travel trailers and 14,000 mobile homes, Broussard said.
But those travel trailers and mobile homes were lived in – some for several years – and are not in good condition, he said.
FEMA has deemed them as “repairable but unusable in their current condition for FEMA’s needs,” according to a FEMA news release.
Broussard said FEMA estimated it would cost an average of $2,000 to repair each travel trailer to make it into a “nice recreational vehicle.”
“It would make no sense for the government to do that,” he said of FEMA repairing the trailers to keep them.
The first to have a crack at getting the trailers will be other federal agencies, he said.
After that, GSA will offer whatever units are left to the State Agency for Surplus Property in each state and territory.
“If there are any left after that, they will be put up for auction to the public,” Broussard said.
Broussard said FEMA will only get rid of a few hundred trailers at a time.
“We don’t want to flood the market,” he said.
An official with the Louisiana Recovery Authority said FEMA’s plan to reduce its inventory of travel trailers and mobile homes is a sound plan.
“By FEMA surplusing them, it’s a good way for states to get property rather than throwing them away,” said Christina Stephens, an LRA spokeswoman.
“I don’t know if any Louisiana state agencies will want them, but if they do, they will have an opportunity to acquire them,” she said.
Stephens said the LRA would not try to get any of the trailers.
“We’ll leave providing temporary housing in an emergency up to FEMA,” she said. “They have a program in place. We don’t want to duplicate that.”
For John Bontrager, of Emma, Ind., the easy money has run out.
Bontrager, who is Amish, worked at a factory in nearby Middlebury, building FEMA trailers. He was not unusual; more than half the Amish men in northern Indiana had factory jobs. But when the RV industry collapsed last year, he and many others lost the work that supported their families and, over the years, enabled this Amish community, the third-largest in the United States, to grow and prosper, according to Christian Science Monitor.
While some are seeking jobs at local furniture shops or in construction out of state, Bontrager has decided to return to the traditional Amish livelihood: farming.
In January, he ordered a greenhouse – 30 by 96 feet and covered with two layers of plastic. Family and neighbors helped put it up. In late winter he planted it with 7,000 strawberry plants, stuck into plastic pots stacked six high. He expects his greenhouse berries to appear a month before local field strawberries and to taste sweeter than California imports.
“I think it’s going to be a real hit,” he says, the sun pouring down on rows of young plants and two small sons making mischief at his feet.
Amish men across northern Indiana are going back to farming, driven by necessity and also by a conviction that this is their proper work. Some are growing strawberries or tomatoes in hooped greenhouses that have sprung up in the countryside. Others are raising milk goats. Many are planting large truck gardens, putting in onions or potatoes or other vegetables to sell at a produce auction that the Amish have started in order to attract wholesale buyers.
The Amish, who for religious reasons shun modern conveniences such as cars and electricity, began here as farmers more than a century ago. But as their numbers increased – Amish couples often have 10 or more children – land prices soared and farms became increasingly unattainable.
Other Amish communities have met this challenge by starting home-based industries like furnituremaking and metal fabricating.
“In just about every settlement across the country, there’s been a shift away from farming toward small businesses,” says historian Steven Nolt at Goshen College, an expert on the Amish. In Indiana, however, the Amish found ready work in factories, making recreational vehicles.
The RV industry was a mixed blessing. Its high wages enabled many young families to buy a few acres and build a home. All around Emma, a rural crossroads in northeastern Indiana, stand gleaming new houses with white vinyl siding and, often, a matching barn.
But factory jobs also brought unease. Amish men rubbed shoulders with non-Amish who swore and engaged in other un-Amish behavior. The money encouraged habits the Amish frown upon, “spending it too much on themselves, going out to dinner too much, taking long trips,” says Otto Graber, a dairy farmer from nearby Shipshewana.
Worse, factory jobs kept fathers away from their children.
For these and other reasons, many Amish see a silver lining in the RV slump. “It’s probably good for the community,” says Kenneth Otto, who works only a few days a month at his factory job. “It was really good for too long. We just took it for granted,” he says, and “It got (us) away from farming.”
The idea of going back to farming has long tugged at the Amish. Nine years ago, a group of them began a produce auction near Emma, hoping to create a market. By last year the auction had blossomed to almost 100 growers. This year, organizers expect twice that many.
“Most … say they’ve been dreaming about this ever since the produce auction started,” says LaVerne Miller, one of the founders. “But being they had a job, it was always ‘someday.’ ”
It won’t be easy. Miller and others have been holding meetings to instruct beginners in bee pollination, quality standards and other issues. They say it’s unlikely that large numbers of Amish will suddenly make their living growing vegetables.
“It’s not all easy money,” says Perry Miller, LaVerne’s father, who grew up on a farm. “It takes hard work and determination. But it’s a pretty good thing if you put all your heart into it.”
Bontrager now spends a lot more time at home with his wife and 11 children. Like many U.S. families, they have cut back. They’re baking their own bread, forgoing store-bought cereal and traveling less. “We’re just kind of struggling along,” he says.
He doesn’t know if the strawberries will turn out. He’d gladly work a few more years at the factory, to save up for more greenhouses. Yet he seems hopeful and confident, for now.
“In the Bible it says, ‘By the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread,’ ” he says with conviction. “It’s more the easy-money way, going to the factory job.”