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Enough Already: Katrina, FEMA Trailers, and the Road Forward

By Linda Reeder, AIA, LEED AP

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, tens of thousands were left homeless owing to floods and high winds damaging or destroying their homes. About 150,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers were distributed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Texas following the 2005 hurricane season, at an average cost of $65,000 for 18 months. As of February 1, 2008, approximately 38,300 Louisiana and Mississippi households still lived in these “temporary” trailers and mobile homes.

Belle Chasse, LA, February 4, 2006 - Rows of travel trailers are being fitted with plumbing and electric power as part of the installation process...

Belle Chasse, LA, February 4, 2006 - Rows of travel trailers are being fitted with plumbing and electric power as part of the installation process in Plaquemines Parish. Photo by Robert Kaufmann/FEMA.

The 18-month federally mandated maximum for occupying emergency housing has come and gone, extended in recognition of the scarcity of affordable housing in the Gulf Coast region. Compounding frustrations about the slow pace of recovery are concerns about poor indoor air quality in the travel trailers and mobile homes. While there are no federal standards for allowable levels of formaldehyde (a gas believed to cause cancer and known to cause respiratory problems) in residential indoor air, the Sierra Club tested trailers in Alabama beginning in April 2006 because they received reports from social workers there of elderly trailer occupants being hospitalized and dying from respiratory ailments. The elderly and the very young are particularly susceptible to the hazards of formaldehyde. The majority of tested trailers had higher than the OSHA recommended levels of formaldehyde. Concentrations in one trailer were found to be 0.34 parts per million, a level the Sierra Club describes as “nearly equal to what a professional embalmer using industry-proscribed safety equipment would be exposed to on the job.”

At FEMA’s request, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tested air quality in a representative sampling of travel trailers and mobile homes between December 21, 2007 and January 23, 2008, about eight months after the Sierra Club. The CDC’s preliminary conclusions were that “In many trailers, mobile homes, and park models tested, formaldehyde levels were elevated relative to typical levels of U.S. indoor exposure….At the levels seen in many trailers, health could be affected.”

Formaldehyde is found in building materials used in trailers and mobile homes such as pressed wood and particle board. While there are such materials available that emit low levels of formaldehyde, it appears that these low-emitting materials were not used in many of the 100,000 travel trailers FEMA ordered to house hurricane victims. Only 14,000 of this number were on the lot; the others were produced in a hurry to meet FEMA’s orders. Indoor air quality experts believe that, in the scramble for construction materials, high-formaldehyde-emitting composite woods were imported and installed in the travel trailers. There is no prohibition against this practice.

The vast majority of temporary housing FEMA provided was travel trailers, not mobile homes. For example, on August 17, 2006 (nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina), 60,981 households were living in travel trailers in Louisiana and 3,169 were living in mobile homes. Travel trailers are easier to maneuver, easier to fit on a homeowner’s lot, and can be set up in floodplains, which mobile homes cannot. But travel trailers are not intended for long-term occupancy and, unlike mobile (manufactured) homes which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are not regulated by federal standards.

Since out-gassing increases as temperature and humidity rise, FEMA hopes to move what it anticipates will by then be 35,000 Gulf Coast households out of trailers by summer, relocating them to hotels and motels until apartments are available. By the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, FEMA had already spent $650 million for hotel and motel rooms.

Mold, including toxic black mold, has been a problem for many travel trailer occupants as well. It is not surprising that travel trailers, constructed of an aluminum or fiberglass shell, under-insulated, parked in a hot humid climate, and continuously occupied, should have moisture-related problems. Compounding these factors are the conditions under which most of the FEMA trailers were produced. In the initial crush to fill orders for trailers, some assembly line workers reported being expected to produce a trailer in eight to ten minutes, and 12-hour shifts during six-day work weeks at this pace were commonplace—and not conducive to quality control. While FEMA travel trailers come equipped with air conditioners, the CDC recommends occupants “open windows as much as possible to let in fresh air.” What may be good advice for lowering formaldehyde levels may increase risk for mold in the humid months.

Clearly there is still a need for safe, permanent, affordable housing in the Gulf Coast region. In addition to the potential indoor air quality problems in FEMA trailers and mobile homes, the trailers may not be able to withstand hurricane-force winds. Classified as vehicles rather than dwellings, the travel trailers are not tested for wind resistance. FEMA requires the trailers to be tied down but suggests occupants follow evacuation advice of their local emergency managers.

Architects in Action

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes, architects responded. At the Mississippi Renewal Forum charrette led by architect and planner Andrés Duany, FAIA, in October 2005, Marianne Cusato designed a 300 SF house, an alternative to FEMA trailers, that soon became the prototype for a series of Katrina Cottages. Within the series are models comparable in cost to FEMA’s 18 months of temporary emergency housing. The Katrina Cottages meets building codes (including for hurricane resistance), can be shipped and quickly assembled, and the smaller ones are designed to be integrated into a larger building, either as an accessory apartment or as part of a larger main house. (See “The Katrina Cottage Story” for more information.) And they are adorable. A national building supply chain is marketing kits for 11 different Katrina Cottage models, ranging in size from 544 SF to 1,800 SF. Prices for the packages average $55/SF, although this varies by region.

But while these cottages are widely available in the private sector, FEMA is not authorized to pay to construct permanent housing, only to provide temporary housing assistance. Recognizing the short-comings of this system in responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress authorized FEMA to spend $400 million toward rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s housing stock through an Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP) in June 2006. The pilot study was to find alternative sources of emergency housing that the Senate Appropriations Committee described would be evaluated for providing “better, safer and more cost effective solutions than the exclusive use of travel trailers.”

FEMA distributed the funds through a grant competition among state-designated agencies in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Florida. The states had just 35 days to complete the grant application and submit designs. From the 29 projects submitted, FEMA selected winning projects to fund. Mississippi received 72.5 percent of the available funds for projects which included the Park Model and GreenMobile Project. The remaining communities did not receive funds proportionate to the damage they sustained. Florida received no funds at all.

Call to Action

While the one-time legislation funding the AHPP helped some communities, the big picture remains unchanged. FEMA is authorized only to provide temporary housing assistance, even when this solution is not cost effective long-term and may harm the health of the people the agency is required to assist.

Architects should lobby their congressional representatives to authorize FEMA to routinely be permitted to provide permanent housing that is comparable in cost but superior in quality to temporary housing. FEMA’s AHPP can be a model for reform; indeed, FEMA could designate acceptable alternatives from submitted designs as a starting point, while continuing to approve other designs and manufacturers. Instead of ordering large quantities of trailers only to sell them off at great discounts once the emergency has abated, FEMA should invest in prefabricated housing systems that can be quickly erected but safely lived in and adapted for the long-term—a flexible dwelling, not a temporary shelter. This solution makes sense for the occupants, the taxpayers, and the environment.

To protect victims of future disasters from the hazards and indignities suffered by those who lost their homes in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, architects must do more than design intelligent and affordable housing that can be quickly manufactured and erected. We must work to reform a system that has so clearly failed by reaching beyond our drafting boards to demand legislative action—before the next disaster hits. The cleverest and most cost effective designs help no one if a system for execution is not in place.


Keywords: Building performance, Leadership, Physical design, Environmental comfort, Indoor air quality, Indoor environmental quality, Formaldehyde, Mold, Travel trailers, Disaster housing, Manufactured housing, Mobile homes, FEMA, Hurricanes, Katrina, White paper

Sierra Club , “Toxic Trailers? Tests Reveal High Levels of Formaldehyde Levels in FEMA Trailers,” , p. 1.

FEMA, “Results of Indoor Air Quality Testing of Trailers and Mobile Homes For Formaldehyde in Mississippi and Louisiana.” [source:]

Sierra Club, p.1

CDC, “Preliminary Findings on Air Quality in FEMA-Supplied Mobile Homes and Trailers.”

Amanda Spake, “Dying for a Home,” The Nation, February 26, 2007.

“Frequently Requested National Statistics Hurricane Katrina—One Year Later,” FEMA. [source:]

CBS News, “Scientists Analyze FEMA Trailer Materials,” February 16, 2008. [source:]

“Frequently Requested National Statistics Hurricane Katrina—One Year Later,” FEMA.

Amanda Spake, “Dying for a Home,” The Nation, February 26, 2007.

CDC, “Preliminary Findings on Air Quality in FEMA-Supplied Mobile Homes and Trailers.”

Paul Rioux, “In Trailers, Protection from Elements in Doubt,” The Times-Picayune, May 26, 2006.

Office of Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security, “Evaluation of FEMA’s Alternative Housing Pilot Program,” April 20, 2007, p. 2. [source:]

Office of Inspector General, p. 5.


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