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."