U.S. auctioned trailers before hurricanes hit
The federal government auctioned disasterresponse trailers at firesale prices just before Harvey devastated southeast Texas, reducing an already diminished supply of mobile homes ahead of what could become the nation’s largest-ever housing mission.
More than 100 2017model Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers were sold over the two days before the Category 4 hurricane landed in the Gulf Coast, an analysis of government data by the Associated Press found. Harvey was already projected to be a monster storm that would inflict unprecedented damage.
The trailers were designated to be sold through Aug. 28, after floodwaters sent thousands of Texans onto rooftops and into shelters.
About 79,000 homes in the areas affected by the hurricane were flooded with 18 inches or more of water, said Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator for Harvey.
The auctions — about 300 since the beginning of the year — have left FEMA with a standing fleet of only 1,700 units. The agency has put out bids for another 4,500, but officials could not say when they would be ready to meet needs arising from Harvey, Irma and potentially future storms.
“There’s a vast chasm between what they can supply and what is actually needed,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, adding that he found the trailer auctions an “unfortunate decision.”
FEMA officials said the units sold had all been used to house survivors of last year’s floods in Southern Louisiana, who returned them with damage that made them unfit for redeployment.
“The ones you will hear about being auctioned are the used models that we’ve determined it’s not cost-effective to refurbish. We’re very rigid and strict about what we’ll refurbish,” Byrne said.
Yet the 300 trailers sold on the Government Services Agency’s online auction since the beginning of the year 2017 were advertised either without problems, or with only minor damage, such as flat tires, buckling trim or missing furniture, GSA records showed.
FEMA deployed 144,000 trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but started selling off its stock in 2007 when the trailers became symbols of the troubled federal response after lawsuits accused some of those units of being riddled with high levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde.
Sales were halted after tests by the Centers for Disease Control in 2008 showed formaldehyde leaching from the trailers’ pressed-wood products. The auctions resumed after a court order was lifted in 2010, and Katrina-era units resurfaced on Native American reservations, in North Dakota’s oil fields and in Texas, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to Chemical Heritage Foundation fellow Nicholas Shapiro.
In 2011, FEMA announced that all of its trailers would be built with wood products that met emission standards set by the California Air Resources Board.
Linda Bennett (left) embraces Mayor Andrea Pendleton in Rainelle, W.Va., last year upon receiving a U.S. trailer after her home was damaged by flooding.