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FEMA plans buyback of tainted storm trailers

WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency will offer to buy back trailers purchased from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina because of concerns over formaldehyde levels, according to an internal memo issued by agency administrator R. David Paulison.

“FEMA will refund the purchase price of any recreational vehicle sold, within the last 12 months, directly to an occupant, upon repossession of the unit” by the agency, Paulison wrote in the preliminary directive.

FEMA has provided about 120,000 trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina since September 2005. After occupying the trailers for a certain period of time, the residents living in them were given the option of buying them at reduced rates.

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker was unsure how many buyers had purchased their homes from the agency.

It was disclosed during a congressional hearing in July that top FEMA officials had ignored warnings from staff members that some of the trailers had high levels of formaldehyde and that some residents complained of illnesses that might be linked to the chemical.

Following the hearing, Paulison committed to testing the trailers and FEMA put a hold on selling them.

In addition to the buyback, Paulison’s internal directive said that FEMA would not use any travel or mobile homes as housing during future disasters and that the agency would halt all sales permanently.

“No recreational vehicle … currently in FEMA’s inventory will be installed, newly occupied, or (unless for the purposes of rendering into scrap) sold,” Paulison wrote.

The directive said the agency also would assist families still temporarily residing in about 56,000 FEMA-owned trailers – located mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi – to other housing, if requested.

It also said that if housing wasn’t available in the immediate area – a frequent complaint from Katrina survivors trying to move out of the temporary trailers – FEMA would pay to relocate occupants anywhere in the country.

Walker was unsure when the decisions in the memo would be announced to the public.

“We’d like to do it as soon as possible, but we’re working through some logistical issues,” Walker said.

In addition to FEMA’s program to sell the trailers, the government’s General Services Administration had been auctioning off used trailers on its Web site. The majority of used trailers were sold through the GSA, but Walker said the buyback would not apply to GSA purchases.

A spokesperson for GSA said that as of mid-July, the agency had sold about 40,000 trailers since April 2006.

Wanda Phillips of Purvis, Miss., bought her trailer from the GSA site a little over a year ago and complained that the FEMA buyback program would not apply to her and others simply because they brought them from a different agency.

“I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “It’s reasonable to believe that Girl Scout cookies don’t have poison in them, and it’s reasonable to believe that if there was poison, the Girl Scouts would take care of it. I don’t see why the same doesn’t apply to the federal government.”

Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in building materials such as paneling, carpeting and glue. At high dosages, the substance has been shown to cause respiratory diseases, bloody noses, headaches and insomnia, and has been linked to certain kinds of cancers.


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