Cumberland Times-News

Local News

April 29, 2010

‘Buyer beware’ purchasing FEMA trailers

CUMBERLAND — A building code official warned Thursday for a “buyer beware” approach when considering the purchase of a surplus manufactured home from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

R. Clem Malot, of Commonwealth Code Inspection Service, said two recent cases of the manufactured housing units found installed in Blair County, Pa., do not meet the minimum standards for manufactured housing when brought into the state. Malot is the code inspector for municipalities in east Somerset County, as well as Bedford, Blair and Franklin counties.

“According to our records, these units are mostly all Hurricane Katrina excess housing that is no longer needed by FEMA,” Malot said. “It appears to our research that most, if not all, of the units were built for Climate Zone 2.”

Pennsylvania, as well as Maryland and West Virginia, are in Climate Zone 3.

“We have discovered hundreds of these units sitting in Cumberland, Md., awaiting sales into the local market or nearby states,” Malot said. “It’s a crime against the people of the United States, as far as I’m concerned.”

According to an official with General Services Administration, the agency charged with auctioning off federal government equipment, 3,899 FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes were sold from sites located in Cumberland and Frostburg. A total of 102,000 trailers were auctioned off in the latest round nationwide, the official said, and each included warnings that it was “not to be used for housing.”

When asked about what, if any, obligation the new owner of the unit would have to a third-party buyer to include the warning, the official, who requested anonymity, said, “This is a question for FEMA.”

Scott McConnell, FEMA deputy press secretary, referred all questions to GSA. Malot said the warning, which is to be included on a bill of sale, is not transferred once the new owner crosses state lines and registers the unit there.

Locally, at least one businessman says the trailers available for purchase are safe — and any potential risk is outweighed by the economic benefits brought to an economically depressed region. Joe Hutzel, of the Tennessee-based Camper’s Corner Indoor RV Supercenter, sells trailers, including former FEMA trailers, from a lot on Midlothian Road in Frostburg. Hutzel said any trailer found to be tainted with high levels of formaldehyde is tagged with a sticker stating the unit is not for full-time residence.

“Those stickers cannot be removed off the trailer by the seller,” Hutzel said. “That’s the law. We asked about that. The first thing we asked is could we take the FEMA stickers off. They said no.”

Hutzel said such stickers are rare, however, because the majority of trailers so designated have been destroyed. Hutzel said at the Frostburg location, the average buyer wouldn’t be able to tell which trailers are FEMA trailers and which are, specifically, FEMA trailers used in the post-Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita aftermath “unless I told you.”

Hutzel is not the only wholesaler who purchased FEMA-owned trailers. Markwood “bought several thousand,” Hutzel said, and Frostburg-based Braddock Construction also purchased some. But Hutzel emphasized that the purchase of those trailers can’t be generalized to say they’re all unsafe.

“A lot of people are buying these for various reasons” other than full-time occupancy, Hutzel said, listing chicken houses and weekend uses for workers in the coal and oil industries.

Hutzel estimates that “less than 40 percent” of the FEMA trailers being sold were used in Louisiana and Mississippi. He knows of families who purchased FEMA trailers in brand-new condition for about $13,000 instead of the $47,000 price tag they would have paid at a retailer.

Aside from a potential deal for buyers, the process has been a boon for local residents who have been paid to haul trailers and store them on their private land as well as clean them, add tires and do body and glass work. Hutzel said he estimated the local Campers Corner has put “in the neighborhood of 75 people” to work.

Additionally, Hutzel said, a specific brand of trailers — Cavalier, made by Gulfstream — primarily contained high levels of formaldehyde only because of the rush the federal government put on the manufacturer to have them made.

“These trailers (were) manufactured and never opened up,” Hutzel said. “These trailers should have had time to be aired out and then delivered to the customer. That’s not my fault” if it didn’t happen.

Hutzel said trailers used in the aftermath of the late 2005 hurricanes in Louisiana and Mississippi should be avoided — but not because of formaldehyde issues.

“I wouldn’t let my dog stay in them,” Hutzel said, claiming the temporary residents “tore them to pieces.”

“If some were unsafe, the government destroyed them,” Hutzel said.

That’s not necessarily true, said Becky Gillette, former co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Mississippi Chapter and still the group’s formaldehyde campaign director. It was that organization that first tested the trailers and found them to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde.

“The legacy of FEMA making stupid mistakes that lead to people getting sick continues,” Gillette said of the auction of 102,000 units.

Gillette said that, yes, stickers are affixed to the units and waivers are signed promising not to use the trailers for full-time occupancy. However, “that practice is not being followed.”

Hutzel’s company, Camper’s Corner, has sites located in Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas. And the trailers are being sold to private buyers all across the country.

Kevin Spradlin can be reached at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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