Saturday, December 15, 2007

Toxic Trailer Political Theater

FEMA's at it again.

We might get tested. Since we're certified I'm sure we'll need meet somebody in a space suit soon.

As a sometime CSPAN junky, usually late at night because She won't let me watch it. She prefers Channel 15, which She sometimes watches for 2 hours straight.

A while ago I surfed across the FEMA Toxic Trailer Hearings late at night . It struck me a very odd. Most of us have known for about 18 months that some people are sensitive to the off gassing of chemicals inside FEMA Trailers. I got an email from paT armsTrong in August of 2006 regarding an MSNBC report. By that time I had been in my trailer about 9 months. There had been other reports before that one.

We have all generally attributed it to Formalgehyde, which is used in the manufacture of virtually every component inside a Travel Trailer. Studies in automobiles and building have shown the familiar smell of new cars or buildings is actually a complex mix of things which dissipates quickly with use. Whether there are other substances mixed in there seems to be of little concern to anyone.

While I don't think FEMA has done much right, some Representatives were pressing FEMA to virtually guarantee that in future there will be no Formalgehyde in FEMA trailers, not an acceptable level, but none. None of them seemed to understand that with time the problem will simply go away. On the other hand no one seems to understand that in some cases these very same Representatives were critical of FEMA's tardiness in delivering trailers in the first place.
That points out a logistical problem. Pretty much everyone agrees that the number of people made homeless by Katrina exceeded anyone's expectation and was not planned for. FEMA did try to respond, they bought every available Travel Trailer in dealer inventories and ordered the accellerated construction of many many new ones. This is probably where some of the problem originated. Now they're being crucified for doing what they were told to do. I can only imagine the uproar if FEMA has said back then "We can't deliver Travel Trailers because they smell bad".Normally as a Travel Trailer moves from construction to use there is a considerable time lag. The materials are produced, shipped to the manufacturing plant and incorporated into the trailer at a fairly leisurely pace. The stuff probably sits around for several weeks at each stage during the process. Once the Travel Trailers are produced they are sent to dealers and often sit around dealer lots for months, open for inspection. The final owner may take possession of a Travel Trailer weeks or even months before it is actually used, and then it's probably used for only a short time. All of this allows time for the materials to off gas and reduces the amount of material in that air.

FEMA greatly compressed the normal time frame. Massive orders caused manufacturing and delivering Travel Trailers far more quickly than normally would be the case. They also put them into service much more quickly that would normally happen, in circumstances they were not used as they typically would be. Travel Trailer residents were exposed to whatever fumes there were over a longer period that anyone in the industry would expect. I have estimated that we have used our trailer the equivalent of more than 10 years of frequent recreational use. In our case when we first got the Travel Trailer the smell was very noticeable. We both commented on it, at times it was enough to cause irritation including watery eyes.

Since we knew something about off gassing, we did what FEMA eventually recommended, (not that FEMA actually recommended anything to us). We opened the windows. Initially it was autumn and the weather was mild. I closed the trailer up when I wasn't there for security, but I left the roof vents open . Whenever I was there I opened the windows and let the outside air in, even at night while I slept. In a few weeks the odor subsided. First to a level I could only detect when I entered the trailer after it was closed up. A little later to a level undetectable by my nose. By now I'm pretty sure it would be difficult to measure a significant difference between the interior of the trailer and the exterior. I guess we'll see, if FEMA shares the results with us.

Since that hearing FEMA has placed sales and donations of trailers on hold. They are developing a standard for safe exposure to Formalgehyde. That should take five or six years. In the meantime FEMA won't be able to purchase or deploy travel trailers. They will probably ultimately destroy the ones they purchased for Katrina and Rita. What a waste of money, energy and land fill.

An interesting factoid came out during the hearing. Something like 8,000 people are interested in purchasing their Travel Trailers, of course FEMA asked everyone if they were interested without quoting a price. I'm one of them. I've seen former FEMA Travel Trailers rolling down the highway during a recent road trips. Someone should find a use for these trailers. Another observation is that Travel Trailer's are the only temporary solution for people who are rebuilding their homes to stay on their property and watch over it.

The real tragedy is that next time there is a serious disaster there will be no easily deployed temporary housing for the people who lost their homes. There is no stockpile of Katrina Cottages to use next time. They don't fit everywhere anyway. FEMA is supposed to be investigatin ing alternatives to Travel Trailers. The current alternative is to use mobile homes, but I doubt anyone has tested them for Formalgehyde either. I pretty sure next time there is a need for a significant number of temporary housing units, some people will criticize FEMA again for sloth and others for wasteful spending on custom designed temporary housing.

Throughout this whole episode FEMA has failed to take, what seems to me, to be the most obvious step. Test every single Travel Trailer and let the occupants and prospective purchasers know the truth, the whole truth, warts and all. Looks like the finally might start.

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