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As the recreational vehicle industry mobilized to provide housing to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Hurricane Katrina victims, it was also faced with another challenge – working through the bureaucracy inherent in dealing with an arm of the federal government.
In our latest RVBUSINESS.com Industry Poll, we asked our website visitors to generally gauge FEMA’s performance while also offering some subjective commentary regarding the process.
As might be expected, we received a mixed bag of opinions, although most did find varying degrees of fault with FEMA’s overall relief efforts.
One retailer succinctly responded, “It was a disaster in itself.” A fellow retailer offered, “FEMA handled everything with us timely and proficiently. No complaints.”
For the record, 42% of our respondents said the government’s relief effort was “sloppy but effective.” Another 31% categorized FEMA as being “in complete disarray,” while 18% said the process was ineffective and the remaining 10% termed it well organized.
When given a listing of four options and asked to assess the greatest challenges in dealing with FEMA, 56% answered “all of the above.” Other choices included: reaching government officials (12%), receiving clear directions on how many units were needed (16%), determining what kinds of units were required (6%) and verifying whether orders were bonafide (13%).
The bulk of the criticism centered on an apparent lack of coordination by FEMA, especially in the early going, causing confusion among industry OEMs, retailers and suppliers.
“I was in e-mail and fax contact with a FEMA rep for nearly two weeks to get all the questions answered and go through their ‘hoops,’ ” a retailer reported. “Then no contact or replies for two weeks. I had units waiting to ship and drivers ready to haul, and FEMA simply stopped all contact with no explanation. They need better organization so they don’t waste their time, and mine, to not purchase units.”
In the opinion of many respondents, better organization would require having a detailed plan in place prior to the disaster.
“Doing business with FEMA is always difficult and the scope of the disaster made it worse this time,” offered an association member. “The government needs to determine the best way to provide emergency housing to storm victims. Are RVs or manufactured housing appropriate? Should victims get housing vouchers so they can rent vacant apartments or homes? In this disaster it appears that the victims will need long-term emergency housing versus temporary housing.”
Another issue was the lack of regulated pricing on units, particularly those sold directly off dealers’ lots.
“I believe that there should be some sort of formula for determining the sale price,” said a retailer. “For example, dealer cost, plus freight, plus $1,500 profit, or allow 10% profit. And then the dealer can decide if they want to sell it to FEMA or not. I have heard that if you know how to work the system you can get more for the trailer than MSRP, and if that’s happening, that could come back to haunt the dealers that have done this and be a possible black eye for the RV industry.”
Some participants, however, gave FEMA high marks in dealing with Katrina’s widespread devastation.
A retailer noted, “Considering the scope of FEMA’s task, I feel they have done an acceptable job. If anything could be improved it would be better and more precise communication.”
Another dealer reported, “Our dealership sold several units to FEMA and the only issue we had was obtaining official documentation (a contract/order). We were solicited by third-party contractors that wanted to capitalize on the situation, however that quickly became a non-issue. All things considered, this process was fairly smooth.”