FEMA trailers hit the road

By Cain Burdeau
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — The last of the once-ubiquitous FEMA trailers has been removed from New Orleans more than six years after floodwalls and levees broke during Hurricane Katrina and caused the city to fill with floodwater.

On Monday, The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the last trailer was removed Sunday and those living in the trailer moved into their rebuilt home last week. At one point, New Orleans held more than 23,000 FEMA-issued trailers and mobile homes.

Rebuilding fund shortfalls, health and personal problems and other hurdles caused people to rely on the trailers. Most were able to move out of the trailers and mobile homes within a few years after Katrina struck in August 2005. By December 2010, only about 230 were left in the city.

Mark C. Merritt, the president of Witt Associates, a disaster consultant firm working with Louisiana officials, said the FEMA trailers were used on the Gulf Coast out of necessity because so many houses were flooded.

“Six years (to remove all the trailers) sounds like a lot, but with the average catastrophic disaster, it takes six to 10 years to get a lot of things done,” Merritt said.

FEMA and its contractors shipped about 203,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and other models to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two of the worst storms in U.S. history. The hurricanes destroyed more than 300,000 homes in 2005 and displaced about 700,000 people.

FEMA said there were three trailers still left in Louisiana from the 2005 hurricane season.

“It was an excellent idea. It enabled people to stay close to their homes, work on them, monitor them,” said Edwin Weber, who lived in a trailer with his brother for five years. The Webers were pushed out in February 2011 as part of an effort to rid the city of trailers.

“They were starting to press. FEMA told us we had to move out or go through a bunch of hearings,” he said.

Leaders hailed the removal of the last trailer as a milestone in the city’s rebuilding.

“Another page has turned in New Orleans’ post-Katrina history,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, crediting city code enforcement officials and FEMA for working to get people out of the trailers.

“That’s an end of an era,” said Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club activist who led efforts to expose problems with high-levels of formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers sent to the Gulf Coast. “Most of those people would have been better off living in a tent in terms of their health. …My job isn’t done because FEMA dumped all those poisonous trailers on the market.”

FEMA’s trailers have ended up around the country, she said. “I’m getting calls from families all over the country now. Families are getting sick.”

A 2009 Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report said the air in many trailers registered dangerously high levels of formaldehyde and that FEMA was too slow to get people out after it learned of the problem in 2006.