In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency signed a $25,000-per-month lease with the city to use 453-acres at the Hope Municipal Airport as a staging area for trailers.
But 16 months later, about 12,000 travel trailers and 8,300 mobile homes still sit at the airport in this town of 10,467 residents. Many of them were never used by the victims of Hurricane Katrina or other emergency.
Now, FEMA is putting up the thousands of trailers for sale at auction, saying they are too damaged to be repaired and put back into service. The travel trailers will be sold "as-is," and most include the appliances and furniture inside.
"Obviously, as these trailers come back, our sites are getting full around the country," says Deborah Wing, a FEMA spokeswoman in Washington. "We need to auction off those we no longer have a use for."
FEMA will use the 8,300 mass-produced mobile homes on the northwest side of Hope Municipal Airport for future disasters, said Jerry Hall, FEMA's site manager in Hope.
But that still leaves the travel trailers in Hope - and 46,000 nationwide - that need to be sold. And those numbers are only increasing as more and more trailers are returned to the government.
Additionally, FEMA has so many trailers in Arkansas and other states that selling all of the units at once could bankrupt the nation's travel-trailer industry, Wing said.
"We don't want to flood the market," she says. "We're well aware of the economic effects selling these trailers could have."
Already, the government has auctioned 1,700 travel trailers and sold 900 mobile homes in previous auctions. The trailers were auctioned in batches of 300 through the General Service Administration's Web site.
Wing said FEMA trailers normally sell for about $5,500 on average, or about a quarter of the price the government paid for them after the 2005 storm. Most have something wrong with them, like stained carpets or missing batteries and propane tanks, as well. Only trailers requiring $1,500 or more in repairs are on the auction block, FEMA said.
In addition to the physical flaws, the Sierra Club's Mississippi chapter found that some of the trailers also had formaldehyde levels that exceeded those recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Found in wood and glues in travel trailers, the colorless gas can cause eye irritation and headaches. In excessive levels, formaldehyde can be toxic.
Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency began to test air quality in FEMA trailers, and though the test results aren't available, FEMA has advised people living in travel trailers to increase ventilation, keep inside temperatures cool and lower humidity levels.
Hall said some of the travel trailers being auctioned off are "Plain Jane" trailers, or mass-produced trailers that all use the same parts and are easy to repair and reuse, while most are the high-end consumer models purchased from trailer lots at retail prices.
He said FEMA distributes the plain trailers after emergencies, but Hurricane Katrina forced the agency to purchase any kind of trailers available, including luxury travel trailers with surround-sound audio systems and slide-out compartments that create a larger living space when parked.
Many times one family received a Plain Jane model while their neighbor was given a $20,000 unit with the stickers still attached, Hall said. Hurricane victims repeatedly called FEMA with requests for an upgrade, he said.
For more information go to: GSA Auctions
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)