Tiny Tuesday: FEMA Trailers, Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1, you may like to do that first. Here’s a summary: the 2005 hurricane season terrorized the Gulf Coast. FEMA deployed over a hundred thousand trailers to shelter residents. The residents got sick. The trailers were found to contain dangerous levels of formaldehyde. FEMA faced lawsuits and repossessed most of the trailers.

What happened to the trailers next is utterly horrifying: FEMA sold them. Of course, after the lawsuits, FEMA could not condone its trailers for human habitation. But the agency’s solution – placing stickers that read “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” on the windows – reeks of negligence. Many salespeople who scooped up trailers (by the hundred, in big lot auctions) simply removed the stickers and resold them to unsuspecting buyers.

Trailer sales coincided with the housing bust of 2009. Buyers in impoverished places, including many Indian reservations, found the offer of a $4000 house too good to pass up. This documentary discovers that many trailers went to the oil boomtowns of North Dakota, which continue to face housing shortages. Buyers weren’t informed of the health risks, or they were too desperate to care. But a VIN lookup can reveal the trailers’ origin, and a 30-minute test can inform residents of air quality issues.

Though formaldehyde levels have diminished since the trailers were first deployed, they often remain double the recommended level for habitation. Additionally, the trailers are now over ten years old, already beyond the design life for such cheap construction. Here’s a Homesteading article with a long punchlist of things to look for if you ever consider buying a trailer for yourself.

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Endless trailers in North Dakota oil country. (flickr – creative commons)

Unfortunately, people in and around the energy industry often have no alternative, and too many others can’t afford something safer. They face the dreadful question of which is worse: a toxic home or no home at all? The fact is, like an overcrowded apartment, a FEMA trailer presents risks like physical discomfort, skin and respiratory ailments, psychological harm, and insecurity… but living under a roof these are only risks, whereas living on the street they are virtually guaranteed. That the trailer is the lesser of two evils really drives home the message that we should do better.

There’s a glimmer of hope. FEMA recently released a new trailer design. According to FEMA, it meets the HUD’s functional and safety requirements for housing, and it’s built to last, because many families need more than a year or two to recover from a disaster. The new model was first deployed after last summer’s wildfires in California, and I find no evidence of complaints. It may be that FEMA has finally cracked the tough nut of relief housing.

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