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FEMA sold disaster shelters as 'Frankenstorm' gathered strength

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Photo - FEMA trailers at a staging area in Coblesville, N.Y., from which numerous trailers were auctioned off as "excess" in 2012. (Photo: Schoharie County, N.Y., Sheriff's Department)
FEMA trailers at a staging area in Coblesville, N.Y., from which numerous trailers were auctioned off as "excess" in 2012. (Photo: Schoharie County, N.Y., Sheriff's Department)
News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

Federal officials sold hundreds of emergency trailers for disaster victims at fire-sale prices in the months before Hurricane Sandy churned toward the United States, The Washington Examiner has learned.

Now, with thousands of families left homeless in New York and New Jersey by the hurricane, those same federal officials are poised to spend more taxpayer dollars to buy brand-new trailers.

BY THE NUMBERS
• 886 "Park Model" trailers, made by TL Industries, sold online by GSA since 2009
• More than 220 were sold this year
• 46 sold this year in New York state

In all, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sold nearly 900 of the prefabricated temporary homes - none more than four years old and most used only once - since 2009, according to the newspaper's analysis of federal surplus property auctions.

The agency even sold two trailers on Oct. 22, the same day the National Weather Service upgraded a tropical depression and christened it Sandy. Forecasters began warning the same day of a possible super-storm making landfall somewhere in North Carolina or further north in heavily populated areas of the Eastern Seaboard as far as Maine.

FEMA chief Craig Fugate (AP Photo)

Neither FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate during a Nov. 8 news teleconference, nor other agency officials in the days since could say how many trailers were in the agency's inventory in the week prior to the storm, or how many have since been requested from FEMA by residents in the areas hit hardest by Sandy. The agency depends upon state officials to tell it how many units are needed.

Fugate said FEMA would buy or lease additional units "if necessary," and said his agency has “looked at our ability to contract for additional (units), which would come from new manufacturing or come from existing housing stock.” An agency spokesman separately told The Examiner that 40 units were at a staging area near Lakehurst, N.J.

UPDATE: FEMA officials told The Examiner after press time for this story that the agency has 2,000 trailers in its inventory. 

Robert Latham, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, told The Examiner emergency housing will be a vital issue for Sandy victims:

"I don't know what was the driving force behind auctioning off or selling these units at a significantly reduced rate.  But I can tell you temporary housing is going to be a critical issue in New Jersey and New York as they try to recover."

Forty-six 2008 and 2009-model trailers were sold earlier this year at three separate auctions from a FEMA staging area in Cobleskill, N.Y., a small town roughly three and a half hours' drive from New York City.


DESMOND

"To be honest, I didn't expect they would be selling them," said Schoharie County, N.Y., Sheriff Tony Desmond, whose deputies guard the 36-acre site where the FEMA trailers were sold earlier this year.

Desmond said he thought the trailers would be kept for the next storm.

"If they were serviceable, they might be taken to the next site of a disaster where they would need housing," Desmond said. "But they were selling them."

These aren't the infamous "Katrina trailers" from 2005 that were tainted with toxic levels of formaldehyde. A 2008-or later model trailer would have been built well after that controversy became national news.

The trailers were sold for a fraction of the original $25,000 price the government paid for each of them. The General Services Administration, which handled the auctions for FEMA, sold some for as little as $3,800.

"Time is running out for interested members of the public to bid on the current round of excess Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manufacturing housing units now up for auction," FEMA said in a June 18 news release concerning the auctions.

The trailers are similar to single-wide mobile homes and feature one to three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bath. They are supposed to provide durable housing for disaster victims while their homes are being rebuilt. FEMA offers the homes to eligible residents for up to 18 months.

Some of the trailers sold this summer from Cobleskill reportedly were used to house victims of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, as FEMA had previously deployed 240 units to Binghamton, N.Y., for recovery efforts there last year.

However, some of the trailers that were sold had never been used, said Edward Munger Jr., a Schenectady Daily Gazette reporter who covered the auction.

One purchaser "got a brand new one that was never used," Munger told The Examiner. "They looked fine to me."

More than 200 of its 2009-model trailers were auctioned by FEMA in 2009, The Examiner found.

"It didn't take too much to clean them up," said Haresh Bhatia, who bought two of the two-bedroom units in June at Cobleskill. Bhatia said he only had to clean the oven and fix several shelves.

Another man bought a FEMA unit from Cobleskill for about $7,000 and hoped to resell it on Craigslist at the then-prevailing price of $15,000, according to Munger.

The agency also donated two trailers to Desmond's department and to the local fire coordinator. Desmond said it was a "nice trailer."

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team and can be reached at rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4909. Data editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story and can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

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