The Awful Odyssey of FEMA's Hurricane Katrina Trailers

In the days after hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana and Mississippi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought 145,000 trailers to house the thousands of victims displaced by the storm. Over the next five years, the trailers -- which emitted unhealthy levels of formaldehyde, but which were nevertheless used by thousands who couldn't find any other place to live -- became a symbol of the federal government's bumbling in the face of a national tragedy. Sold at auction, and then repurposed as housing for BP cleanup workers, the trailers remain a problem that just won't go away.

The FEMA trailer debacle began with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions. Using temporary housing to shelter victims of natural disasters is hardly a new idea; in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, survivors lived in temporary shacks, and FEMA used trailers after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1994. When Katrina destroyed 75% of the housing units in New Orleans, the agency scurried to respond to the disaster, spending $2.7 billion on 145,000 trailers and mobile homes to house an estimated 770,000 newly-homeless victims of the hurricane.

Unfortunately, in the rush to find temporary housing, problems quickly emerged. Many of the trailers FEMA purchased were, by its own standards, unsuitable for deployment in a flood plain. Even worse, an estimated 42% of them emitted toxic levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that causes nasal cancer and nosebleeds, and can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems. Nevertheless, faced with a choice between homelessness or living in toxic trailers, thousands chose to stay in the FEMA trailers.

Originally, the trailers were supposed to house residents for a maximum of eighteen months. But five years after Katrina hit the Gulf coast, 860 Louisiana and 176 Mississippi families still live in FEMA-owned shelters. But those residents represent only a fraction of the problem: According to experts, thousands of other Katrina victims live in trailers purchased from FEMA, while 12,000 people are still homeless in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, since 2006, FEMA has sold over 130,000 of the trailers for a total of $279 million; at one auction in January 2010, the agency sold 93,000 of them for $133 million. The sales prompted massive controversy, partially for the poor resale cost: the January sale yielded approximately seven cents on the dollar. More importantly, critics worried that the formaldehyde-emitting trailers, many of which were outfitted with labels declaring them unfit for human habitation, would be passed along to bargain-hunting home buyers.

During the BP oil spill cleanup, an even more insidious development occurred: as the New York Times reported in June, the trailers -- often missing their government-mandated warning labels -- were re-purposed as temporary housing for cleanup workers. The shelters may have lacked proper documentation, but they still had the formaldehyde. For example, Alpha-One, a disaster contracting firm in the Gulf area, sold dozens of the trailers to cleanup companies. Asked about the sale, the company's owner, Ron Mason, dismissed the formaldehyde threat: "Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that's formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It's not a big deal."

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Do the FEMA trailers pose more of a risk than the typical travel trailer or mobile home? Take off all the windows and doors for ventilation and they would still be better than housing in a 3rd world country.

August 31 2010 at 9:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If only we could be there for our own people nearly as much as we are there to aid the citizens of countries that hate us and sponsor terrorism........I dont even recognize America anymore..In the name of political correctness and Multiculturalism , we gave the country away!.Bye bye my beloved America .....all those vets died for NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Including my grandfather!

August 31 2010 at 4:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to martinsportraits's comment
Roxane Valancia Zouz

You sound very ignorant. I am sorry about your grandfather but you mixing two different issues. Not every third world country supports terrorism, if there is any type of violence in places where you find a lot of poor people it is because of the poverty. Hurricane Katrina is a great example, crime rates in New Orleans jumped right after the storm hit because the people were all of a sudden poor, they had every thing taken away from them in a matter of hours; their homes, their belongings and lost of family and friends were gone, just like third world countries that have been ripped off of their resources. In America, we are thought to see this land as the paradise of the world and we are fed bull about everyone else. So do your research before you make incoherent statements.

July 31 2013 at 7:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

thats the whole story?

August 30 2010 at 8:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

As a comedian quipped, it was a brilliant move to build a city below sea level in a hurricane alley and fill it with democrats.

August 30 2010 at 7:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you are stupid enough to live below sea level and don't have fins and scales then you get what you deserve. Wet

August 30 2010 at 5:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

yea if the floods the goverment caused they wanted to be sure to kill the rest off with the chemicals in the trailers

August 30 2010 at 5:21 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

lets see some numbers on all the trailers built by all asa mfgs. that have formadhyde as part of the construction , such as plywood,with the standard adhesive for many years and mony other adhesives used in mfg. oftrialers and home construction products . what year was it that formadhyde could no longer be used???

August 30 2010 at 3:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Should have added or asked why the government didn't sell these to the public for $5000?

August 30 2010 at 3:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Saw hundreds of trailers in a resale parking lot in Houston. Found out they are selling them for $1000 to licensed dealers. Then saw one for sell for $5000 last week when I was out shopping for a new Spa. The spa dealer also sold metal buildings / sheds. There one their lot was a FEMA trailer. Not bad - a $4000 profit on a $1000 investment.

August 30 2010 at 3:21 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Joanna Casteel

This is our government at work, scary isn't it.

August 30 2010 at 3:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply