People are still living in FEMA’s toxic Katrina trailers — and they likely have no idea
As soon as Nick Shapiro turned into the parking lot of the Tumbleweed Inn in Alexander, N.D., he recognized the trailers. They were off-white, boxy, almost cartoonish, and unadorned with any of the frills — racing stripes, awnings, window treatments — that a manufacturer would typically add to set a trailer apart on a display lot.
But these trailers had never seen a display lot. Shapiro had first seen them when he was living in New Orleans in 2010, doing fieldwork for his Oxford University PhD. In New Orleans, everyone knew what they were, and the city was desperate to get rid of them. They had been built fast, and not to last. The fact that some people were still living in them because they had never gotten enough money to rebuild their homes, or had run afoul of unethical contractors, was just an unwanted reminder of how far the city still had to go to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
But in the oil fields of Alexander, where Shapiro found them, people had, at best, only a dim memory of hearing something bad about the trailers on the late night news.
Only one person in the improvised trailer park near the Tumbleweed Inn knew where the trailers were from. Now 19, he’d lived in one as a child, after his family’s home was destroyed when the levees around New Orleans broke in 2005. “It feels like home,” he said, looking around the park. “Not the landscape. The trailers. I’m used to it.”
Most of the people living in the trailer park were like him: men, young, drawn to North Dakota from all over the U.S. by the prospect of making $16-an-hour minimum in an oil boomtown. So what if they had to pay $1,200 a month to live in a trailer out on the prairie? They made it work. They slept in bunk beds, seven to a trailer, so that they could save as much as they could, and then get the hell out of there.
Get me 120,000 trailer homes, pronto!
The story of the trailers — which Grist has assembled from Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews, and the public record — goes like this: Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, trailer companies were in touch with local officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), setting up contracts to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the need for housing was overwhelming. At the time, there were about 14,000 trailers in lots around the country, waiting to be sold; FEMA needed 120,000. It ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of travel trailers and mobile homes from 60 different companies, and the production lines cranked into overdrive.
This map shows initial deployments of FEMA trailers in Louisiana between September 2005 and October 2009:
Still, a month after Katrina and Rita hit landfall, Louisiana had only managed to get 109 families into trailers. The alternatives were overcrowded shelters, or squatting in the wreckage of the flood.
As new trailers arrived, they brought hope: They were shiny and new, and most importantly, had never been buried under 12 feet of water. But when the people who were supposed to live in them opened the doors, many noted a strong chemical smell inside. Some thought it was OK: It smelled kind of like a new car in there! Others did not think it was OK, especially after they started to get nosebleeds and headaches, and began to have trouble breathing. Local pediatricians began to notice an epidemic of respiratory infections in children in the area — and all of them seemed to be living in FEMA trailers.
“After the storm, about half of the people I knew were in FEMA trailers,” said Sierra Club organizer Becky Gillette. “Some of them were fine. The smokers didn’t complain much. But I had a friend who would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air.” Gillette knew a fair amount about air pollution — she’d worked on social justice campaigns around the local oil refinery. The link between mobile homes and formaldehyde was well documented; the low ceilings and small size concentrated any fumes emanating from the particleboard they were built with.
Even after the National Institutes of Health declared formaldehyde to be a carcinogen, the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t bother to regulate levels of formaldehyde for travel trailers or motor homes, under the theory that they were only temporary lodging. Formaldehyde test kits were about $35 apiece, and they added up fast. Gillette ordered 32 of them — over $1,200 worth. When 30 of the 32 tested positive for high formaldehyde levels, she shared the information with FEMA — which, she said, did nothing. So Gillette got a grant from the Sierra Club to buy even more kits.
FEMA — or at least some parts of FEMA — did know that the trailers were dangerous, though that would not emerge until the congressional hearings on the issue in 2008. FEMA appears to have stopped testing trailers in early 2006, after a field agent discovered that one trailer, which was occupied by a couple expecting their second child, had formaldehyde levels at 75 times the recommended threshold for workplace safety. The couple was relocated, and management pushed back against further testing, even after a man was found dead in his trailer a few months later. “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK,” a FEMA lawyer named Patrick Preston advised on June 15, 2006. “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
That same month, the Sierra Club announced that, out of 44 trailers tested with kits purchased from Gillette’s grant, 40 had dangerously high formaldehyde levels. Mary DeVany, an occupational safety consultant who worked with the Sierra Club on interpreting the results, theorized that the plywood that was used to build some of the trailers wasn’t heat-treated properly. Trailers built by three companies in particular — Pilgrim International, Coachman Industries, and Gulf Stream Coach — had the highest levels. Kevin Broom, a spokesperson for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, told reporters that trailer residents needed to open their windows.