FEMA is spending $28 million a year to store travel trailers and mobile homes at five Mississippi sites while the agency determines whether they’ll be reused or sold as scrap.
The work is not very far along and could run through 2011, based on renewal options for leases on the land. The cost covers land leases, utilities, security, operational costs and training at five South Mississippi sites, four of which are full and on “caretaker” status. Trailers are still being hauled to the fifth site, Hickory Grove, a hamlet near Hattiesburg.
“If you add up all the units we have, that’s around 32,000 units for the Mississippi sites,” said Gordon “Buzz” Hackett III, chief of FEMA’s Logistics Operation Division. “In this case, I’d say we have the majority that we’ll still be inspecting. Depending on how many teams are inspecting and the number of individuals, obviously, it could take some time for having that number, the 32,000.”
FEMA representatives said the work was stalled by a federal lawsuit over formaldehyde in the trailers, but that obstacle has been cleared. So far 283 trailers have been identified as scrap, which means they have no value beyond the parts and should not be used as housing.
“It’s not like we want to maintain these units on these sites,” Hackett said. “We would rather be disposing of them and putting money back in the treasury, but because of formaldehyde and some other litigation, we were prohibited until recently of even disposing of these via scrap.
“And so, believe you me, we would really like to dispose of these as quickly as possible because we are all taxpayers in the end.”
David Williams of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the agency lacks proactive leadership.
“FEMA is a tough nut to crack,” Williams said. “With an issue like this, it is probably a microcosm of FEMA and other government agencies. They get so lost in bureaucracy that they forget about common sense.
“There have been so many problems with FEMA and with the trailers since the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast. There’s been one misstep after another. People don’t get rewarded for action. They get rewarded for pushing paper. That could be what happened here.”
The trailers will be auctioned by the General Services Administration, the agency charged with management of government property, on its Web site, gsaauctions.gov. GSA planned to launch sales this past week of trailers from two of the sites, Carnes and Lumberton, but no trailers had appeared on the auction site as of Saturday afternoon. A GSA spokesman, Gary Mote, said the agency does not know how much money the scrap trailers might fetch.
Hackett said FEMA has 100,000 trailers throughout the Gulf region, with the majority having been used after Katrina and Rita.
“A lot of them have been exposed to weather and conditions for three years,” he said. “A lot of these units are probably going to find themselves being scrapped and salvaged, but until we do our inventory inspections, we won’t know for sure.”
A federal General Accountability Office study in November 2007 deemed expenses “exorbitant” for FEMA trailers housing disaster victims. That study did not cover trailer-storage sites.
The GAO study said: “FEMA will have spent on average about $30,000 on each 280-square-foot trailer at a private site through the March 2009 temporary housing extension. In contrast, expenses associated with a trailer at our Port of Bienville Industrial Park case study group site during the same period could end up costing taxpayers about $229,000 – or about the same as the cost of a five-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home in Jackson, Miss.”