Southeast Texas elected leaders demand temporary FEMA trailers despite health risks

Some local elected officials are downright furious with FEMA because FEMA will not put travel trailers on the property of homeowners who can’t live in their houses because of damage from Hurricane Ike.

The inability to get temporary housing back into cities in Orange County has caused great hardships for the families and headaches for local employers and city officials who are worried that their workforce will never return home from cities where they have relocated.  The longer people are forced to stay away, the less likely they are to return.

FEMA has been unable to contract for the rapid delivery of regular full-size FEMA mobile homes and similar manufactured housing units called park model trailers.  Over one month after Hurricane Ike hit, only 62 of these trailers have been placed in the Southeast Texas counties of Jefferson, Orange, Hardin and Chambers.

This seems strange since these full-size trailers are the primary temporary housing unit that FEMA relies on in the wake of disasters.  This is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately and plans put into place to prevent this from reoccurring in the next disaster.

The pressure to get some form of temporary housing in place is so great that local officials have suggested that FEMA make the so-called “toxic travel trailers” made infamous during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita available as interim housing.  Officials argue that these travel trailers that have formaldehyde levels in excess of what the federal government has determined are safe levels, are better for survivors than living in a tent.  Local officials say travel trailers are safe to use for a short term while regular FEMA trailers are brought in.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is reported to have sided with local officials in this request.  So long as the travel trailers are safe for occupancy as a temporary travel trailer under state law, the Governor thinks the readily available stock of travel trailers should be used.

Like a lot of other disaster related problems this one presents a bad set of options to hurricane survivors.

The travel trailers are a health hazard according to federal health officials.  They not intended for long term occupancy.  When travel trailers are used for regular housing, as opposed to short-term recreational occupancy, exposure to these high formaldehyde levels becomes a serious health problem.  As we enter the fall and winter seasons, people will be more confined in the trailers and there will be less ventilation.  Despite promises that the trailers will be only a temporary housing solution, experience has shown that FEMA and state housing rehabilitation efforts take a long time.

FEMA’s failure to plan for and provide full size FEMA trailers, which are far safer than the formaldehyde-laced travel trailers, is inexcusable.  Local and state officials are betting that toxic trailers can be safely used as a short term solution while FEMA acquires and sets up safer trailers.

History has shown betting on quick FEMA action is not a safe bet when the health of families is concerned.