Despite health fears, trailers are housing tornado victims

fema_trailer_alabama_tornado.jpgBy Ariella Cohen, The Lens. Years after FEMA moved Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims out of formaldehyde and mold-infested trailers, the very same government-issue dwellings are once again sheltering disaster victims.

Bought at government auctions or from entrepreneurs reselling them, the trailers are appearing in increasing number along the path of the tornadoes that ravaged Alabama and other parts of the South last month. Jacked up on cinderblocks above severed tree limbs and piles of trash, the trailers cut a lean white silhouette eerily familiar to anyone who spent time in the Gulf Coast region in the past five and half years.

For many Katrina survivors, the sight of the trailers triggers memories of mysterious rashes, burning eyes and chronic breathing problems linked to the formaldehyde the trailers emit. Yet in Alabama, not even a federal ban on residential use of the trailers can curb the market for these low-cost housing units.

"They're livable," Tommy Ramsay, a retired truck driver said, standing next to the 8-foot by 32-foot Gulfstream travel trailer he moved into after a tornado tore his house off its foundation and dropped it some ten feet away. One of several trailer models manufactured specially for FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the deadly 2005 hurricanes, Ramsay's one-bathroom, two-bedroom Cavalier is marked with a serial number guaranteeing it was made in compliance with agency specifications. Ramsay got it from a family member who had bought it at an auction after that "Louisiana deal," he said, referring to the government's decision to condemn residential use of the trailers three years after rushing them into use by Katrina and Rita victims.

Ramsay said he was in the bath when the tornado flattened 40 percent of the houses in his tiny hometown of Phil Campbell, Ala. (population 1,000). Like many of his neighbors, Ramsay isn't sure if he will have the money to rebuild. "We're 65 years old," he said. "Are we going to rebuild or stay in a mobile home? It's a big decision that we can't make yet."

Even after the government banned residential use of Katrina-era FEMA trailers because of high formaldehyde levels, businesses are selling them -- and finding a market in disaster zones, and other places where people are desperate for low-cost housing.

Roughly 100 miles south of Phil Campbell, customers at a discount used car and recreational vehicle dealership on the outskirts of Birmingham mull variations on the same question. Last Saturday, a man in dirty blue jeans came in to take a look at the FEMA trailers advertised in a hand-written sign on the outlet's front window. "I need a home," he told a salesman. When asked why the dealership markets its Gulfstream Cavaliers by tapping into a bungled public program that ended with 40,000 trailer residents suing the government, Myles Smith points to its $2,500 price tag. "The average American is hurting, especially around here, around now," he said. "They need housing. People think they are saving money when they go with FEMA."

From housing to hazard and back again

The trailers -- which are selling in Alabama for between $2,000 and $4,000 -- traveled a long road before landing in the state's tornado-flattened neighborhoods. The journey began within weeks of the 2005 hurricanes, when several recreational vehicle manufacturers, including Gulfstream, received $2.7 billion in contracts from FEMA to supply 145,000 trailers for displaced Gulf coast residents. Gulfstream collected $521 million from FEMA for 50,000 of the bare-bones, aluminum-sided homes, according to federal documents.

Within months of moving in, residents began to report rashes, fatigue, burning eyes and problems breathing. They complained about feeling overwhelmed by the scent of formaldehyde. An industrial chemical commonly used to engineer wood, formaldehyde at high levels of exposure is a known carcinogen that can aggravate respiratory problems and weaken the immune system.

In June 2006, a Slidell, La. man was found dead in his trailer. He had complained about formaldehyde fumes for weeks before collapsing. By 2008, tests done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had shown the chemical present in trailers at rates anywhere from five to 40 times greater than average in most modern homes and at levels that exceeded federal workplace regulations. Officials told people to leave the trailers and after years of downplaying risks, finally committed to tightening chemical safety standards for mobile housing units.

Yet even with the trailers condemned at the policy level, federal officials were determined not to throw away the contaminated units, which had cost $1.7 billion to manufacture and another $75 million a year to store and maintain, according to FEMA.

In 2010, the General Services Administration began holding mass public auctions of the unneeded, and thoroughly troublesome, trailers. Heavy discounts reduced the price per unit to a small fraction of what FEMA paid in 2005. The fire-sale prices, however, came with a catch -- all buyers had to sign a waiver agreeing that the government cast-offs would not be used as housing and that each unit would be marked with a notice labeling it unfit to live in. The agreement also stipulated that if units were resold, the new owners must inform the purchaser that the units are not intended for housing. If the risks and regulations are not made clear, the seller is liable for penalties and even criminal charges that could result in a five-year prison sentence, FEMA spokeswoman Mary Olsen said. Vowing never again to use the same models of travel trailers, FEMA has also rewritten specifications for emergency housing to mandate units that are larger and have more ventilation.

Toxic trailers on the open market

But even as FEMA develops safer alternatives to the Katrina-era trailers, hundreds of companies and individuals remain heavily invested in the future of the contaminated units, thanks to the decision to sell the trailers to the public. Businesses small and large have spent a combined total of more than $279 million to put more than 130,000 trailers back on the market, where they are often sold multiple times and without the legally mandated warning against residential use.

Everyone who bought a FEMA trailer from the government was required to sign a waiver agreeing that the federal cast-offs would not be used as housing, and that each unit would be marked with a notice labeling it unfit to live in. On a recent Saturday, however, a large number of the 60 FEMA trailers  on a dealer's lot in Alabama didn't have this notice. A quick tour of the lot revealed only one with a notice still affixed to it.

At the discount trailer dealership on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., salesman Myles Smith is well aware that some customers are buying trailers to live in. Of the 60 trailers on his lot, most are missing the legally mandated labels warning that they are unfit for habitation. The stickers were removed before the trailers reached his dealership, Smith said. But even if the trailers had stickers, Smith is not convinced potential buyers would be deterred. "You can write 'not for housing' all you want but if you need a place to live and the trailers are the most affordable option, that's what you're going to do," he said. "You can't spend what you don't have."

"I understand why the government did the stickers, but they know folks are going to live in them. That's what they made them for -- folks to live in," he added. He anticipates selling some of his remaining trailer stock in the next few months to tornado victims.

Several of the largest resale companies selling FEMA trailers to small outfits like Smith's are in the Gulf Coast region, where more than 53,521 trailers have changed hands for an aggregate price of more than $60 million. One of the resale companies, Timberline Homes Inc., spent upwards of $300,000 on 200 castoffs purchased at auction over the past several years, according to interviews and federal documents. The company, based in Brewton, Ala., makes no secret of the trailers' residential use.

"This is a home you can get set up for a few thousand dollars. For someone who just can't afford anything else, it's the way to go," said Winston Lindsey, the company's chief financial officer. Lindsey, like Smith, expects to sell most if not all of his remaining stock to people displaced by the tornados. "Once the FEMA checks start coming in, we'll see people," he said.

Nick Shapiro is a medical anthropologist and Oxford University doctoral candidate who has traveled across the United States interviewing buyers and sellers of the one-time emergency housing units.

"The trailers exhibit a desperate architecture and have a natural magnetism towards disaster," he said, "but they also reveal less concentrated and visible misfortunes as they gravitate to states like South Dakota, where there is a lot of rural poverty, and Florida, where there are high rates of foreclosure." Shapiro, like the dealers, expects the trailer trade to grow briskly as existing housing stock fills and tornado victims who can't afford rising rents search for low-cost alternatives.

The resellers say they don't worry about formaldehyde levels in the trailers. Over time, the chemical dissipates in the air and they say, given the passage of time, that FEMA travel trailers are likely no more dangerous than any other manufactured housing. "If you buy a brand-new trailer today it has formaldehyde too," trailer seller Smith said. "Clothes have formaldehyde. Everything does. After Katrina, it was an emergency situation so they didn't let the trailers air out enough. Now, they've had time to ventilate."

While science backs the claim that toxicity dissipates over time and with proper ventilation, there is no clear consensus on how exposure, even at low levels, affects people over the long term. Further complicating matters is the fact that all people have different chemical thresholds and very little research has been done on how toxins like formaldehyde affect people with varying health conditions. "We know senior citizens, those already exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, and children can be more sensitive but beyond that, there are a multitude of variables that make it difficult to generalize," Shapiro said.

Research has also found that symptoms can be caused by dangerous levels of mold, which grows quickly in trailers because of high indoor moisture levels and lack of ventilation.

Given the uncertain risks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the trailers be used only as short-term, temporary housing, no matter how long they've had to ventilate. "These units weren't designed or built for people to live in for two and a half years," Dr. Michael McGeehin, director of CDC's Environmental Hazards and Health Effects Division, testified at a 2008 congressional hearing on the FEMA trailers.

The courts have had no easier time establishing the cause of alleged health effects. In 2008 a federal judge denied class-action status to lawsuits filed on behalf of trailer residents alleging exposure to toxins. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that the suits can't be handled as a class action because each person's claim is unique and must be examined individually. Of the thousands of legal claims, some have resulted in settlements for residents while others, including several high-profile, precedent-setting cases, have favored the trailer manufacturers; thousands more are still being litigated.

"The causality is difficult to prove," said Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a coalition of 50 congregations and community groups that promote fairer state policies toward low-income Alabamians. "The manufacturers say these people were not in good health before. But I go back to the congressional hearing where the manufacturers themselves admitted these were unsafe."

Low bid, high risk

On a rainy morning in late April, neat white rows of used travel trailers and recreational vehicles stretched across a former racetrack north of Lafayette, La. Amid the sea of trailers, about 500 people had gathered under a big circus tent set up by the auctioneer.

In the past three years, Henderson has paid the government $18 million for 23,636 trailers, and hundreds of them -- most lacking stickers condemning their use as housing -- were going on the block that day in Lafayette.

In promotional and sales materials, Henderson Auctions warns potential buyers that trailers are not meant to be used as housing but most of its trailers are sold without the legally mandated notices.

As the auction heated up, small children sipped cans of soda and tugged on the hands of parents focused intently on the bidding. Men dressed in loafers and loose jeans -- Bayou business casual -- jotted notes on clipboards. Middle-aged couples looked on nervously as prices inched upwards.

In a dozen interviews over the course of the day, buyers said that the risk of formaldehyde poisoning was trumped by home economics. "I was staying away from the Cavaliers because of the things I've heard about them, but now, with everything but wages going up, you can't help but think about it as a backup in case I lose my job and can't pay my mortgage," prospective buyer Juanita Tabb said. Meanwhile, her family plans to use the trailer for camping, she said.

Henderson Auctions did not return repeated requests for comment. In the past, however, company representatives have told reporters that they cannot control what their buyers do with the trailers. "They're not to be used for permanent housing, which is not what we're selling them for... We're selling them for recreational use," the company's chief financial officer Mike Cagley said in an interview with a reporter from KATC news in Lafayette.

A hard choice: health or housing

New Orleans resident Earl Kimble never needed chronic medical care before Hurricane Katrina. Less than a decade later, he relies on three different kinds of throat clearers, two anti-itch eye solutions and one antibiotic for recurring infections. His wife, a self-identified "neat freak" who on a recent Monday could be found scrubbing mold off windowsills in their five-year-old FEMA trailer, takes similar medications. Bottles of Nyquil and bacteria-cleaning Clorox bleach line the unit's small kitchen table.

Itchy eyes, a persistent bronchial cough and constant fatigue have become a part of life in the years since the couple and their daughter moved into a FEMA trailer while saving to buy a new home.

Kimble is grateful to have his Mid-City trailer to live in but says the years in the 32-foot Cavalier have weakened him and his family. "It's not getting better, it's getting worse," he said. "I never had bronchitis before. Now I have severe bronchitis. Me, my wife and my daughter, we cough all the time."

Kimble did not participate in the lawsuit against the trailer manufacturers and FEMA because he did not want to take the chance that the litigation would result in his family losing the trailer which had become their home. "We stayed and took the risk," he said. "Sometimes though I wake up coughing and wonder if it was worth it."

To report illegal trailer use, call the Inspector General of the General Services Administration at (800) 424-5210. Photo of a travel trailer standing beside the foundation of a house struck by the recent tornado In the town of Phil Campbell, Ala., by Ariella Cohen.

Crossposted from Facing South.