FEMA trailer

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A FEMA trailer (travel trailer) in front of a formerly flooded house.

The term FEMA trailer,[1][2] or FEMA travel trailer, is the name commonly given by the United States Government[1] to many forms of temporary manufactured housing assigned to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita or other events, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA trailers were used to house thousands of people in South Florida displaced by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, for as long as two and a half years.[3] They provide intermediate term shelter intended to function longer than tents used for immediate shelter after a disaster. They serve a similar function to "earthquake shacks" erected to provide interim housing after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.[4]

FEMA trailers have become part of the cultural landscape and language of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, along with MREs, toxic mold, Katrina refrigerators, flood insurance, and levee failure. Throughout the city of New Orleans, they have been the only habitable dwellings in some neighborhoods which received extreme flood damage from the recent storms. FEMA trailers have become a common sight, even in neighborhoods that received only moderate flood or wind damage, such as Jefferson Parish.

FEMA trailers remain the property of the U.S. Government and are to be returned after use; however, in 1995 some Florida residents after Hurricane Andrew "bought their FEMA trailers for an average of $1,100 each."[3] On March 25, 2006, FEMA issued a news release[1] requesting residents to call the FEMA Trailer Hotline to schedule removal of unneeded FEMA trailers after use. Surplus FEMA trailers are sold via online public auctions conducted by the General Services Administration (see: GSA website).

FEMA trailer (at left) alongside a Katrina-damaged house in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana

Need for FEMA trailers[edit]

For homeowners, FEMA trailers are intended to provide temporary housing until they are able to gut and repair or rebuild their homes. Because of the extensive destruction to residential neighborhoods by winds, flooding, and tornadoes in 2005,[5][6][7] many of these disaster areas were suffering from an extreme housing shortage. The widespread extent of the rebuilding effort caused a shortage of building contractors and materials throughout the region, which further delayed the construction of new housing, and required existing apartments or motels to house the incoming construction workers.

In New Orleans, the failure of the levee system inundated the city with standing flood water for several days after the storms. Even one inch of standing flood water is enough to cause an outbreak of toxic mold throughout an entire dwelling. This is especially true because the storms took place in the heat and humidity of the New Orleans summer, ideal conditions for mold spores to flourish. Residents were prevented from returning home and gutting their houses for weeks by local government officials, until basic infrastructure for water and electricity were restored to the city. This gave mold colonies time to expand and cover sections of wall that were not flooded. Concentrations of indoor mold spores pose a serious health hazard and can even cause illness in people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and young children.

Flood damage of this type requires the complete removal and replacement of carpeting, flooring, insulation, and sheetrock. Flood damage beyond a few inches may also destroy furniture, appliances, and other personal belongings. Almost all of these homes also received additional water damage from roof damage, so that roofs also needed to be replaced or repaired.

In coastal communities, such as Gulfport[7] and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, buildings were entirely demolished by storm surges.[6] Similarly, many apartments and public housing buildings were closed due to storm damage. Large buildings that sustained significant water damage, including apartment complexes, often require extensive rebuilding and a mold-removal process known as "mold remediation" before they can be rendered safe enough for habitation. With the housing shortage, leasing rates for apartments have become so prohibitively high that most working class storm victims cannot afford them. Without FEMA trailers, some people who do not own or rent homes would be unable to find any form of housing within the disaster area.

Extensive flooding in the summer of 2006 in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey[citation needed] also led to FEMA trailers being made available in the region. Trailers were installed relatively quickly, about a month or six weeks after the flooding, and response times from FEMA for repairs has been extremely quick[citation needed].


Trailer in side yard of damaged house
FEMA trailer park, in what had been a neighborhood playground.

Many FEMA trailers are installed on the private property of homeowners, usually on lawns and sometimes in driveways next to the house. However, there are also numerous FEMA operated trailer parks where many storm victims have been living. Although several types and sizes of manufactured structures have been installed throughout the Gulf Coast region, most are mass-produced, one-bedroom travel trailers. These typical FEMA trailers are designed to accommodate two adults and two children. There are larger trailers and other manufactured structures that can accommodate larger families.

The typical FEMA trailer consists of a master bedroom with a standard size bed, a living area with kitchen and stove, bunk beds, and a bathroom with shower. Each trailer is equipped with electricity, air conditioning, indoor heating, running cold and hot water, a propane-operated stove and oven, a small microwave oven, a large refrigerator, and a few pieces of furniture attached to the floor; usually a sofabed, a small table, and two chairs. There are only a handful of FEMA trailer designs, so nearly all trailers have the same general layout.

Each trailer is elevated about two feet (0.6 m) above the ground, on concrete supports. There is only one door on the side of each trailer, which is accessible through a wooden or aluminum stairwell. There are also long ramps for wheelchair-using occupants. Electrical service to the FEMA trailers is installed by the local power company, which is the Entergy Corporation in most of the Gulf Coast region. Each trailer has its own power meter, separate from the power meter of the house. These trailers do have ports for telephone access, cable, and Internet access. However, these services are not handled by FEMA, and a trailer occupant must arrange to have these services installed by a local provider.

The typical FEMA trailer has two propane tanks on the front of the trailer behind the master bedroom, which provide the hot water, indoor heating, and gas for the stove and oven. Running water for the trailer is usually provided by some sort of water source on the property, usually through a garden hose. Sewage is piped directly to an underground sewage main on the property. Most trailers have several windows which can be opened, as well as small light fixtures in each room.

The trailer parks operated by FEMA range from small lots, consisting of a dozen trailers in the parking lots of office buildings and supermarkets scattered throughout the region, to several massive parks occupying large plots of land with hundreds of trailers. The larger parks are typically surrounded by a chain-link fence and brightly lit at night. FEMA has also provided police security and controlled access to the larger parks.

While occupying FEMA travel trailers or mobile homes, residents are responsible for maintaining their trailers, such as keeping the trailers clean, changing lightbulbs and smoke-detector batteries, and making sure propane fuel tanks are refilled with fuel.[1]

Travel trailers and mobile homes are inspected once a month for the occupant's safety and convenience: if a travel trailer or mobile home requires maintenance beyond basic upkeep, residents should call the appropriate travel trailer maintenance hotline for their parish or county.[1]

A Southern University at New Orleans professor moves into a FEMA trailer in April 2006, more than half a year after Katrina.

Application process[edit]

Storm victims throughout the disaster area are eligible to receive a FEMA trailer. Storm victims must complete a FEMA application form, after which they will be interviewed by a FEMA adjuster, who is similar to an insurance claims adjuster. If the storm victim owns or rents a house in the disaster area, the adjuster will determine if the damage to the home warrants temporary housing until the home is repaired. Victims who do not own or rent a home will be assigned a trailer if they were living in the disaster area before the storm.

To date, almost all applications for FEMA trailers have been approved, even in two-story homes with slight flood damage on the first floor. This is because any amount of standing floodwater requires extensive repairs, during which the house may not be habitable. Large families may apply for larger trailers or even multiple trailers for a single property. After approval, the applicant is placed on a waiting list. The time between approval and actually receiving a trailer can vary from a few weeks to several months.

FEMA subcontracts the installation of FEMA trailers to numerous private contractors. First, a subcontractor installs the trailer itself. After this, other contractors install the access stairs or ramps, furniture, home appliances, and water. Next, the trailer occupant must contact the power company to install a power line and power meter for the trailer. Finally, a FEMA inspector will inspect the trailer for safety compliance. Only after this lengthy process, will the occupant receive the keys for their trailer.

FEMA originally stated that residents could live in their FEMA trailers for 18 months.[8]

Trailer culture[edit]

In general, most Katrina victims appreciate their trailers and commend FEMA for creating the trailer program. In Houston, 1200 of the 4600 trailers initially issued after Hurricane Rita required serious repairs by late 2006. So far, all FEMA trailers have been issued to storm victims without charge.[9] FEMA trailers are manufactured from plastic, aluminum, and particle board. As such, they are somewhat flimsy and require more maintenance than a permanent structure. They are also poorly insulated, offer little sound insulation, and are known to sway in high winds.

Nevertheless, most FEMA trailer occupants had been living in their cars, tents, FEMA subsidized hotels, partially gutted homes, or sharing the crowded homes of relatives before receiving their trailers. As such, the relative personal privacy of a trailer is seen as a vast improvement. FEMA trailers are considered surprisingly spacious; although, they have very little storage space for personal belongings.

Many trailer occupants consider their trailers actual homes, and have affectionately personalized their trailers with curtains, paintings, and houseplants. During the Christmas season, many FEMA trailers have been elaborately decorated with Christmas lights. FEMA trailers have been similarly decorated during Halloween, Easter, and other holidays. Trailers have also been decorated with political statements, sometimes praising and other times criticizing local government officials and FEMA itself.

FEMA trailer parks have developed into small communities. In New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, extended families often live near each other in the same neighborhoods, and several trailer parks are located near the same neighborhoods. As such, many members of the same family live in different trailers in the same parks. Neighbors frequently convene to have barbecues, crawfish boils, and parties for watching New Orleans Saints football.

Health problems[edit]

There have been accusations of health problems caused by high formaldehyde levels in the trailers,[10] produced by formaldehyde emissions from manufactured materials used in construction of the trailers. Residents have reported breathing difficulties, persistent flu-like symptoms, eye irritation, and nosebleeds. Tests on a number of FEMA trailers by the Sierra Club showed some 83% had levels of formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Charlie Melancon have requested FEMA test trailers and address the issue.[11]

In July 2008, researchers conducting a federally funded analysis reported that the toxic levels of formaldehyde in the trailers probably resulted from faulty construction practices and the use of substandard building materials.[12]

June 2009 activities[edit]

At the beginning of June 2009, activists protested in Washington, D.C., to remind the government of the many Hurricane Katrina survivors still without re-built homes. On May 30, FEMA backed off evicting people from FEMA trailers, so the planned protest became a demonstration for better housing for the refugees still living in the emergency trailers. A FEMA spokesman said the organization was working with federal, state and local partners to help the residents get long-term housing. The demonstrators challenged President Obama to make improvements by August 29, the fourth anniversary of the disaster.[13]

On June 3, 2009, FEMA announced plans to virtually give away roughly 1,800 mobile homes to 3,400 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who are living in government-provided housing along the Gulf Coast. FEMA typically provides disaster aid for 18 months. It extended assistance for 45 months since Katrina hit in August 2005.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e "FEMA: Important Phone Numbers for FEMA Travel Trailer Occupants" (news), Federal Emergency Management Agency (uses term "FEMA Trailer Hotline"), March 25, 2006, FEMA.gov webpage: FEMA-24519.
  2. ^ "New life in a FEMA trailer" (news), Rising from Ruin of MSNBC News, October 25, 2005, MSNBC.com webpage: MSNBC-New-Life.
  3. ^ a b Mireya Navarro, "New Housing for Hurricane's Last Victims" (Alter Trailer Park, Homes and Marina), The New York Times, February 27, 1995. pg. A10, New York Times Archives webpage: NYT: about leaving Coral Roc Trailer Park and Sunrise Village trailer park in 1995, noted that some "bought their FEMA trailers for an average of $1,100 each".
  4. ^ [1] 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Shacks
  5. ^ "Tropical Cyclone Report, Hurricane Katrina" (post-analysis), National Hurricane Center, revised August 10, 2006, webpage: TCR-Kat.
  6. ^ a b US Department of Commerce, "Service Assessment: Hurricane Katrina August 23–31, 2005" (June 2006), pp. 10/16, NOAA’s National Weather Service, Silver Spring, MD, webpage: NWS-PDF: page 7 (surge 26-28 feet, 9 m), page 50: "Appendix C: Tornado Reports Associated with Hurricane Katrina" (62 tornadoes).
  7. ^ a b Gary Tuchman, Transcript of "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees" (2006-08-29) 19:00 ET, CNN, CNN.com webpage: CNN-ACooper082906: GARY TUCHMAN, CNN Correspondent: Responds to Anderson Cooper that it felt like it would never end, saying winds were at least 100 miles per hour in Gulfport for seven hours, between about 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. For another five or six hours, on each side of that, they [Gulfport] had hurricane-force winds over 75 miles per hour; much of the city [Gulfport, Mississippi, in Harrison County] of 71,000 was then under water.
  8. ^ "New life in a FEMA trailer..." (news), Rising from Ruin at MSNBC News, October 25, 2005, MSNBC.com webpage: MSNBC-New-Life: about FEMA trailers were originally assigned for 18 months.
  9. ^ "FEMA says users have trashed 1,200 trailers since Rita". YNN. 2008-01-11. Retrieved 2011-06-01. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said more than 1,200 trailers issued to Hurricane Rita survivors have been sufficiently damaged to require serious repairs. 
  10. ^ Hsu, Spencer S. (2008-05-25). "Safety Lapses Raised Risks In Trailers for Katrina Victims: Formaldehyde Found in High Levels; 17,000 Say Homes Caused Illnesses". Washington Post. 
  11. ^ "Dying for a Home" (report) by Amanda Spake, The Nation, February 2007, webpage: TN6: about formaldehyde hazards in FEMA trailers.
  12. ^ Hsu, Spencer S. (2008-07-03). "Toxicity in FEMA Trailers Blamed on Cheap Materials, Low Construction Standards". Washington Post. 
  13. ^ Katrina protesters seek housing, changes.Published: June 2, 2009. UPI.com
  14. ^ Katrina trailers for sale — for $5 or less.Published: June 3, 2009

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