U.S. auc­tioned trail­ers be­fore hur­ri­canes hit

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Michael Sisak and Emily Sch­mall Michael Sisak and Emily Sch­mall are Associated Press writ­ers.

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.

Steve Hel­ber / Associated Press 2016

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.

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