When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced yesterday a mandatory evacuation, a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and an automatic go-directly-to-prison consequence for looters, he also cautioned those thinking of staying, stating that FEMA trailers left over from Katrina are rated for winds only as high as 35-40 mph.  “When this storm hits,” he warned,  “those trailers will move around quite a bit.  As a matter of fact, most of them will become projectiles and start to fly around the city.”  Travel trailers are built to be light-weight, not to stand up to high winds.  So, why did FEMA knowingly rely so heavily on this dangerous “temporary” housing option? 

Also see our earlier posts:
August 29: On third anniversary of Katrina, concerns about preparedness for Hurricane Gustav
March 26: FEMA’s toxic trailer ineptitude in housing Katrina victims raises concern about climate preparedness

There are still at least 14,000 FEMA-provided “travel trailers” in Louisiana and Mississippi, left over from a desperate attempt to provide temporary housing for the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  We have since learned the hard way that these trailers pose a health threat to inhabitants as result of unsafe indoor air levels of formaldehyde, but another danger poses just as much of a threat:  their inability to stand up to high winds, such as those characteristic of conditions in the Gulf Coast region especially during hurricane season. 

An April 2006 article in a Louisiana business publication reported: (emphasis added)

Wind vulnerability.  A travel trailer with an aluminum or metal siding exterior does not provide much security during a storm, experts say….The Causeway Police close the Causeway Bridge to travel trailers in sustained winds of 55 mph.  Johnson said fiberglass-laminated units are more resistant to flying projectiles than aluminum siding trailers. [ FEMA spokeswoman Rachel ] Rodi said FEMA will not determine how much wind force a trailer can withstand before being compromised or its resistance to wind-borne debris because of liability concerns.  There are no technical guidelines (for design wind loads) on travel trailers, said Rodi.

Was there a safer option?  In March 2006 the Times-Picayune reported:

The Louisiana Recovery Authority, St. Bernard Parish and the Mississippi governor’s office are all lobbying FEMA to replace the temporary travel trailers it is using to house displaced storm victims with the “Katrina Cottage,” a 400- to 750-square-foot prefabricated home that sleeps four, can be erected in days, and could eventually be expanded into a full-size permanent home.  The cost of the cottage, they argue, is hard to beat. FEMA is spending about $75,000 to deliver and install each of the 23- to 28-foot trailers for storm victims. A Katrina Cottage can be set up for less than $60,000, manufacturers say.

The same article quotes Miami architect Andres Duany who specializes in reducing suburban sprawl and has worked with Louisiana.  A harsh critic of FEMA trailers, he says that “[t]he use of temporary trailers is a viable proposition if the loss is something on proportion of [hurricane] Andrew, [which destroyed] 20,000 to 30,000 houses.”  More than 300,000 homes in urban areas were lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina.  He claims that spending more than $70,000 on a travel trailer is an “absolute scandal and waste of taxpayer money,”  and that FEMA got “caught with the wrong model and wrong policy.”

How did that happen?  Why did FEMA, in hindsight, make such a poor decision?  FEMA’s hands were tied, by federal law.

The “Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act” (commonly called the Stafford Act) was first passed in 1974 to provide for federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments, and is the law in operation when state governors apply for federal disaster assistance, as occurred before Gustav struck.  It also prevents the agency from spending money on permanent residential construction. 

The March 2006 Times Picayune article also reports that:

Mark Misczak, FEMA’s Louisiana human services branch director, who has primary responsibility for housing, said he’s asked Washington to make an allowance for permanent structures, but the answer has always been no.  Misczak thinks the policy should change, but adds it would literally take an act of Congress.

“I do feel that there are limitations set forward in the law that if changed would be better suited (for FEMA) in a catastrophic event (such as Katrina). We don’t have the authority we need to address the issues we’re facing,” he said. 

Aware of the problem, several bills addressing the overall alternative housing problem as a result of hurricanes and other natural disasters were introduced and considered in the 110th Congress, but none were passed; passage in the waning days of this session is doubtful. 

This issue must be taken up by the next President and Congress if we are to find humanitarian ways to provide shelter for those displaced by extreme weather, expected to worsen as a result of climate change. 

  —-  by Anne Polansky, Sr. Associate