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The Long Journey of the Katrina Trailers

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/trailer-480x277.pngFEMA trailers being shipped to New Orleans. (Flickr/factoryseashell)

*This week, *The Washington Independent is featuring a series of investigative stories on the rebuilding of New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina. Find all of them here.

A few weeks ago, in Henry County, Ga., a woman named Angela Wilson led a local television anchor into her camping trailer, a standard white-clad box on wheels, ready to be pulled into the woods by an RV or a truck. She described how her eyes started to tear up after standing in it a few minutes – not due to emotion, but due to the chemical preservative, irritant and carcinogen formaldehyde.

[Environment1] Unknowingly, Wilson bought one of the 145,000 infamous Katrina trailers – the mobile camping and housing units the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought to house the hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians displaced by the devastation wreaked by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “We were told that this trailer was in no way related to Katrina, that this trailer came from North Dakota,” Wilson told the camera. She said the out-of-state dealer assured her that chemical contaminants were not an issue. Later, she found a pamphlets from FEMA and state officials in Mississippi tucked away.

Five years after Katrina, the infamous trailers – bought for billions, sold for pennies on the dollar – are still causing trouble. And that trouble and those trailers are now widespread. The campers were once congregated around New Orleans, but now blanket the entire country, uncounted and mislabeled in dealers’ lots, back lawns and sites for oil spill cleanup.

On the Gulf Coast, organized into parks of a few hundred trailers each, at the peak occupancy, FEMA trailer housed more than 92,000 families. The government intended the trailers to act as temporary shelter – a place for families to stay for up to 18 months.

Many of the trailers are not mobile homes, but units meant for temporary stays, like camping trips. The problems with them were always manifold. First there weren’t enough: FEMA let tens of thousands of trailers sit idle while New Orleanians suffered without homes. Then, argue advocacy groups, FEMA took the trailers back from families too soon, exacerbating homelessness. The worst problem, though, was the formaldehyde.

As soon as Katrina survivors moved into the trailers, some noticed a harsh chemical stench, soon followed by nosebleeds, coughing, irritated eyes. Formaldehyde, a preservative used in the trailers, was to blame, as was the fact that many of the trailers were not meant for permanent living – just temporary use.

The Sierra Club and other advocacy groups led the fight for testing of the FEMA trailers, and the problem came under congressional investigation in 2007. Dozens spoke out about their experiences. Lindsay Huckabee, for one, gave wrenching testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology about her FEMA mobile unit in Kiln, Miss. Huckabee’s six-year-old, Lelah, developed moderate asthma and sinus infections so bad they required an operation to widen her sinus passages. Lelah also had “pneumonia, ear infections, throat infections, asthmatic bronchitis, nose bleeds, headaches, two MRIs,” and four surgeries. Huckabee’s four other children had similar problems.

The Huckabee family lived in FEMA trailer housing for two and a half years – as did thousands of other displaced families. But they moved out, and then the trailers sat – thousands of them – in storage, for years.

In the late summer of 2005, FEMA had paid about $2.7 billion for 145,000 trailers, campers and mobile homes, approximately one for every home hurt by the storm and flood. The trailers came from Gulf Stream, Forest River, Fleetwood and other major manufacturers. While campers and other recreational vehicles are enormously popular in America – about one in 12 families that owns a car owns an RV — the request for 145,000 new units posed a tremendous shock of demand for the RV market, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, a trade group. In 2005, manufacturers shipped about 384,000 RV units – campers, trailers, motor homes – to dealers, in line with production and sales in the years before and after. The government’s request meant producers had to come up with an additional 40 percent their entire years’ production – and yesterday.

As a result, Uncle Sam has paid for about one in 11 or 12 trailers produced since 2005. The companies and subcontractors started redirecting and pumping out new units. They purchased extra parts, mostly from abroad, for assembly in Indiana, where the camper industry is based. They put out calls for additional workers and kept them on midnight shifts. By September, ordered trailers started to arrive on the coast, shipped by train.

Now, however, the government has little use for those units and has flooded the market for trailers, driving down prices. FEMA endeavored to move families from the trailers to permanent housing as soon as rebuilding started, and by 2007, the number of people living in the trailers had fallen by half, to less than 50,000. In May 2009, FEMA officially ended the temporary housing program, forcing the residents in 4,600 remaining trailers out. (Thousands purchased their trailers for the government, others did not want to move and needed to be evicted.) Today, there are about 800 families in Louisiana still residing in government-owned trailers.

“Ninety-nine percent of these residents have now moved on to more permanent housing,” Mike Karl, FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office Interim Director, said in a fifth anniversary statement. “To date, approximately $5.8 billion has been spent to assist Katrina/Rita survivors, including $4.2 billion in housing assistance and $1.6 billion in other needs assistance.”

Since the trailers’ original residents moved out, the government has spent some $220 million storing vacant trailers, stickered as not intended for permanent residence. Most of them sat on deserted lots until Jan. 29 this year, when FEMA sold 93,000 trailers plus a further 9,300 mobile homes – for approximately 7 percent of what the government initially paid. As with the purchase, the sale of the mass number of units messed up the trailer market.

“I’m certainly hopeful we’re approaching the end of the story for the Katrina units, which we have been maintaining in the hundreds and thousands of units, at the expense of taxpayers,” FEMA Associate Deputy Administrator David Garratt told The Washington Post. “I’m hopeful we can reduce the inventory of units which we can no longer use, and actively maintain the units we can use in actual disasters.”

Where are the trailers now? Everywhere. They are being sold on the internet. They are housing workers for the Gulf Coast oil spill cleanup. Someone suggested sending them to Haiti. They are owned by individuals. And they are part of the RV market’s persistent resale culture: An RV unit, one Texas dealer says, gets resold 10 or 15 times in its lifetime of use. Katrina trailers, more faded with each sale, could be circulating the country for years.

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