Tiny Tuesday: FEMA Trailers, Part 1

The Gulf Coast has weathered more than its fair share of natural disasters. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and her cousin Rita killed two thousand people and displaced over a million from their homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came to the rescue, rapidly buying some 120,000 mobile houses and distributing them to residents as free rentals. The most common model was designed to house a family of four in 350 square feet. Families could apply for a trailer and keep it until they could afford to move or rebuild.

So why was FEMA so harshly criticized for this prong of its Gulf Coast relief effort? You probably already know the one-word answer – formaldehyde – but to understand why the trailers failed so badly it’s important to examine where they came from.

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Delivering a trainload of FEMA trailers. (flickr – creative commons)

FEMA didn’t build the trailers. The agency appropriated emergency relief funds and contracted the job to numerous RV manufacturers. The biggest manufacturer, Gulf Stream Coach Inc., won two contracts totaling $500 million to build 50,000 trailers – an average of $10,000 per unit.

We have seen how $10,000 buys a pretty bare-bones tiny house, even when the house is self-built (i.e. free labor) and many materials are salvaged. New tow-behind travel trailers cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000. Add a profit margin and a quick turnaround time, and it’s clear that a manufacturer building houses for $10,000 apiece will cut corners. Since the trailers were never intended for long-term habitation, cheap construction materials – aluminum, plastic, particle board – were acceptable.

Within months of the trailers’ deployment, residents complained of rashes and headaches. Tests soon revealed high formaldehyde levels, a result of off-gassing from resins in the particle board combined with insufficient insulation and ventilation. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and several health and safety organizations list maximum safe levels of exposure.

Some manufacturers tested their trailers for formaldehyde in early 2006, but failed to admit the health risk. Gulf Stream assured FEMA that its levels were below “the OSHA standard of .75 parts per million”, but this standard is an absolute maximum – for a workplace, moreover, where exposure does not exceed 8 hours a day. In reality, adverse health effects develop at sustained formaldehyde levels as low as 100 parts per billion; this level is the WHO’s guideline for non-occupational settings. All tested trailers exceeded this level, some by a factor of five.

Lawsuits ensued, and eventually FEMA repossessed most of the trailers… but they were not destroyed. So where are they now? I’ll answer that question next week in Part 2.

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Here’s a hint. (flickr – creative commons)

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