WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency will cease using travel trailers to house disaster victims and will buy back any surplus trailers sold to the public as recreational vehicles.
"FEMA will refund the purchase price of any recreational vehicle sold, within the last 12 months, directly to an occupant, upon repossession of the unit," FEMA Administrator David Paulison wrote his staff in a recent memo.
Many hurricane Katrina and Rita victims still are living in cramped travel trailers because they can't find or afford alternative housing. Many are concerned elevated levels of formaldehyde in the trailers and mobile homes have made many inhabitants sick, and some are taking legal action.
FEMA last week announced it would stop selling surplus trailers - those vacated by storm victims who found better housing - through the General Services Administration, which serves as the federal government's supplier. But FEMA did not tell the public it has decided to buy back surplus trailers, which Paulison said were sold at a rate of about 1,200 a week.
"The reasons we have not made that public are mainly because we're in the process of determining how this process is going to work," said FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker. "We didn't want to make the announcement and then receive myriad calls but have no information on how we were proceeding."
Paulison also wrote that FEMA "will NOT continue to offer recreational vehicles as a temporary housing option in future disasters." He urged FEMA officials to "develop and implement an aggressive program" to move thousands of trailer and mobile home residents in Mississippi and Louisiana into rental apartments.
FEMA has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a way to test the trailers to determine their toxicity.
Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical that is released by many construction materials, including plywood and spray-on insulating foam. It is a naturally occurring chemical, but in elevated levels it can cause headaches, burning eyes and throats, nausea and difficulty breathing. It is also a suspected carcinogen.
The Sierra Club began testing trailers in Mississippi's Gulf Coast in April 2006. It found many contained formaldehyde levels considered unsafe by federal standards. But FEMA resisted testing the trailers until a congressional inquiry uncovered e-mails from the agency's attorneys that said testing the trailers could expose FEMA to liability.
Lawsuits are starting to be filed against the trailer manufacturers that were paid hundreds of millions of dollars by FEMA to quickly provide thousands of trailers to Katrina and Rita victims.
Galveston, Texas, attorney Anthony Buzbee filed a suit in a New Orleans federal court Tuesday on behalf of more than 500 Louisiana hurricane victims who are concerned about the levels of formaldehyde in their disaster homes.
"They're stuck in these 200-square-foot trailers, and it's making them sick," Buzbee said.
He also said he's been contacted by about 500 hurricane victims in Mississippi and hopes to soon file suit on their behalf.
"These folks need help and they need help right now," he said.
FEMA is not a defendant in the lawsuit. Federal agencies have limited liability in many cases.
But most of the nation's largest trailer manufacturers have been targeted by Buzbee's suit.
"The manufacturers completely failed to ensure that the trailers were safe," the lawsuit said. "Because these private companies recklessly rushed to produce these trailers and sourced substantial building materials from foreign countries, these trailers have formaldehyde levels that exceed what is considered safe by government authorities."
Gulf Stream Coach of Nappanee, Ind., which won two FEMA contracts worth nearly $540 million less than two weeks after Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, did not return calls requesting comment.
Ohio-based Thor Industries, another major supplier of travel trailers to FEMA, would not comment.
Jeff Tryka, spokesman for Elkhart, Ind.-based Coachman Industries, also would not comment. Starcraft RV Inc., also of Elkhart, Ind., Fleetwood Enterprises of Riverside, Calif., and others named in the suit did not return phone calls.
Buzbee hopes his lawsuits spurs FEMA to move trailer residents out of their homes.
But Lindsay Huckabee, who moved from Pass Christian to a FEMA mobile home in Kiln after Katrina struck, wants to sue to pay for her children's medical bills "and provide them with something."
"We will not sue for $1 million or any crazy number like that," Huckabee said. "But my (18-month-old) son Michael has been exposed to (formaldehyde) since he came home from the hospital."
Meanwhile, FEMA is grappling with what it will do with tens of thousands of trailers it purchased to house evacuees.
Paulison has proposed opening additional storage sites that could hold up to 25,000 empty trailers in Lumberton, St. Gabriel, La., and Jasper, Texas. A smaller site that could hold up to 600 trailers has been proposed for Selma, Ala.
Contact Ana Radelat at email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> .
The Clairon-Ledger (Jackson, MS)
August 10, 2007
The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi)
August 10, 2007 Friday
Agency sold roughly 1,200 units per week from surplus stock
By Ana Radelat
Clarion-Ledger Washington Bureau