An iconic symbol of Hurricane Katrina goes up for public auction today (June 17) as the federal government moves to rid itself of dozens of travel trailers that became the home of storm victims – sometimes for years.
Beginning at 5 p.m. today, 117 Katrina-era travel trailers will be auctioned off to the public by the U.S. General Services Administration. The trailers are on display at the state Department of Finance and Administration’s (DFA) surplus property site on Mississippi 468 just south of the Pearl city limits, according to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger.
“Some of them don’t look like they have been lived in,” said Missy Elmore, a DFA project officer.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed more than 120,000 travel trailers and mobile homes to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in the weeks and months following the August 2005 arrival of Hurricane Katrina. While mobile homes had been used in past recovery efforts, Katrina was the first time such a large number of recreational campers had been used as emergency housing.
FEMA endured harsh criticism over the operation, initially because the trailers arrived late and often in disrepair. Later, FEMA was forced to respond to complaints of persistent respiratory complaints from many people living inside them.
In August 2007, FEMA halted deployment and sale of the travel trailers as temporary housing. Nearly a year later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a final report showing higher-than-normal levels of formaldehyde in many of the trailers.
Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre said he thinks the travel trailers will be remembered fondly, despite their shortcomings.
“They were a lot better than what we had at the time, which was nothing. They served a purpose. We went from sleeping on the floor or the ground or tents to those,” he said. “Had it not been for (the trailers), I have no idea what we would have done.”
Almost all of the trailers on the Coast have been removed as the fourth anniversary of the storm approaches.
FEMA officially ended its emergency housing program for Katrina last month. Just over 508 travel trailers are still in use on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The auction for the Mississippi trailers, which will be conducted online at gsaauctions.gov, is not the first and will not be the last of the federal government’s attempts to divest itself of the campers. So far, FEMA has auctioned off 853 travel trailers and sold another 636 as scrap.
Dozens of trailers not in the new lot already are listed on the site for sale in Mississippi, and hundreds are for sale in Maryland with bids ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per trailer. The bidding pages for the trailers bear red-letter warnings that they may not have been tested for formaldehyde.
The trailers going on sale today that have been tested for unsafe levels of formaldehyde will have paperwork stating that.
Regardless, buyers will be presented with a warning from the federal government that the campers should not be used for housing.
Elmore said a number of Katrina trailers already have found new homes around the state.
“A bunch of small-town police departments bought them and used them as mobile command centers,” she said.
Mike Frizsell, a DFA property officer and co-curator of the trailer auction, said some small towns around the state are using them as polling locations for local elections. But there are just too many of them to remain in governmental service.
“We’ve had these for so long that the federal government said we could go ahead and sell them,” Elmore said.
Elmore said she expects a lot of the former disaster shelters will find new life at fishing and hunting camps.
“I’ve already had about 20 calls this morning, she said Tuesday.
Not all of the trailers are fit for resale, Elmore said. One trailer was returned with a large hole cut out of the wall above the tub, prompting federal official to ask the resident what happened, she said.
“He said, ‘I cut the hole in there so I could fill up the tub so my horse could drink,'” she said.
Perhaps one or two could be saved for an eventual Hurricane Katrina museum. Favre said that probably is the best use for them.
For the next hurricane, Favre said he hopes the federal government will deploy housing similar to the modular Mississippi cottages that came in small numbers late in the relief effort.
“The cottages were intended to be a pilot program for the next one to see whether it would be a better solution,” he said. “Even the smallest one is much more comfortable than a travel trailer.”