FEMA trailers have a bad name. But the Camp Fire could bring 2,000 to Paradise

FEMA trailers got such a bad name after Hurricane Katrina that a top federal official swore the agency would never use them again to house disaster survivors.

But the humble trailers never completely disappeared — and could play a meaningful role in Paradise’s long and painful recovery from the devastation of the Camp Fire.

As many as 2,000 trailers and manufactured homes will be headed to the Paradise region to provide temporary housing for Camp Fire evacuees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday.

The trailers won’t all arrive in a dramatic surge. Although the first few Camp Fire evacuees might find themselves placed in a FEMA trailer as early as this week, the entire program could take several months to unfold as the federal agency scours the region for appropriate sites and determines evacuees’ eligibility.

“I have teams out in the field today,” said Toney Raines, FEMA’s housing task force lead, in a conference call with reporters. “We look at multiple sites every day.”

He said the actual number of trailers brought to the Paradise “could be substantially lower” than 2,000 as evacuees take advantage of other housing-assistance programs, including financial aid for hotels and apartments. FEMA officials have been encouraging evacuees to explore those alternate forms of aid.

Raines and Tina Curry, a deputy director at California’s Office of Emergency Services, said the enormity of the Camp Fire disaster brings special challenges. More than 13,000 homes were destroyed, eliminating about 90 percent of the housing stock in Paradise and creating an immediate housing shortage “in an area where there already wasn’t a lot of housing,” Curry said.

Butte County officials have said the county’s residential vacancy rate was less than 2 percent before the fire. That translates into available permanent housing for perhaps 1,000 families. County officials expect thousands of Paradise residents to be forced to permanently relocate outside the county because of limited housing stock.

At one point, more than 50,000 people were evacuated and more than 1,300 people were housed in schools, churches and other temporary shelters. It wasn’t clear how many people were still in shelters Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Kevin Hannes, a FEMA team leader, said more than 2,400 families have been deemed eligible for financial assistance to pay for hotels, motels and rentals. “This is a great program you to get out of the shelters,” he said.

However, just 152 families have so far taken advantage of those programs because space is limited in Butte County. “They want to stay close to home,” Hannes said.

Raines said FEMA might be able to place trailers or manufactured homes on survivors’ existing properties, but only after local authorities determine that water, power and sewage service have been restored. Otherwise, the units would likely be placed on large sites, as close to Paradise as possible. He said 17 sites have been identified for placing large numbers of units, but he wouldn’t identify them until arrangements are finalized.

“When are people going to be housed? The answer to that is as soon as we can,” Curry said.

Stung by health problems that surfaced when FEMA brought in tens of thousands of defective trailers to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, the agency has cut back the use of trailers in recent years.

“There is a de-emphasis on things like trailers,” said Mark Misczak, a former FEMA deputy director and now a private consultant on emergency management. “FEMA was spending large amounts of money to present these (housing) units that may have health concerns. ... That health issue may have been the catalyst for rethinking things.”

The agency sent more than 140,000 trailers to the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricane. In 2008 the government acknowledged that formaldehyde fumes, which can be carcinogenic, were causing some of the evacuees to suffer headaches, nosebleeds and breathing problems.

Then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said in February 2008 that trailers would no longer be used. “We are out of the trailer business,” said Michael Chertoff in remarks to Congress. “We are no longer going to provide trailers for people.”

In 2012, several of the manufacturers and installation contractors agreed to pay settlements totaling $42 million to about 55,000 evacuees.

FEMA officials have gone to great lengths to downplay the role of trailers in dealing with the Camp Fire aftermath. After touring the ruins of Paradise two weeks ago, FEMA director Brock Long said sheltering evacuees will prove far more complicated than “just dragging FEMA travel trailers and manufactured homes in.”

Only a few thousand trailers were brought into Texas after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston last year, and a few months ago Long said trailers were the solution of “the last resort.”

But Misczak, senior managing director with consulting firm Witt O’Brien’s, said some of FEMA’s alternative forms of help — such as providing cash for people to repair their homes quickly — don’t work so well with a house that’s been burned to the ground.

That’s why FEMA is rolling out trailers in Butte County.

“Trailers, mobile homes, travel trailers can be viable parts of the recovery,” Misczak said. “They still have their place, and I think that’s why they’re still in FEMA’s arsenal.”

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