Agency's disaster housing role questioned as alternatives tested

The Federal Emergency Management Agency housing division has found success in testing new accommodations for disaster survivors. But some housing experts say the agency is letting some pilot programs expire without notice as it grows increasingly uncomfortable in a role most closely associated with formaldehyde-emitting trailers.

"FEMA is shifting more responsibility for permanent housing to housing-dedicated organizations," Fred Krimgold, director of the disaster risk reduction program at Virginia Tech, said at an Environmental and Energy Studies Institute meeting this week.

For its part, the agency counters that the pilot programs were initiated by Congress. The agency does not have the funds or authority to continue on with the programs, said spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.

At issue are pilot projects, such as one in which FEMA adopted apartment buildings landlords could not afford to fix. FEMA repaired the buildings and used them as temporary disaster housing, in a program called the "Individuals and Households Pilot Program."

The program was utilized in Iowa, where severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in May 2008 prompted the agency to fix up a property in Cedar Rapids and house seven families. The project cost about $76,000, according to FEMA's report to Congress in 2009.

Giving each of the families a manufactured home as the agency usually does would have cost nearly $500,000 for the seven households, states the report.

A similar project in Galveston, Texas, following Hurricane Ike cost the agency about $900,000 to house 32 families in an apartment. In comparison, mobile homes and trailers would have cost $1.8 million, according to the report.

A FEMA official said that the agency is still getting feedback from residents and analyzing the benefits of this versus more traditional housing options.

This program, which was better-suited for families than other FEMA housing options, is being allowed to expire, said Francis McCarthy, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

Rather than search for alternatives to its trailer program, FEMA is trying to scale back on housing and hand over some of its responsibility to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said experts at the meeting.

A spokesperson for HUD said the two agencies are working closely to identify their roles and responsibilities and those of their partners in meeting the needs of displaced families.

"This close collaboration with HUD, other agencies and the private only strengthens the services we can provide disaster survivors, by allowing us to draw on their expertise and identify innovative and adaptable housing solutions," said FEMA's Racusen.

Katrina trailers

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA's trailers became a symbol of the government's ineptitude in handling the disaster. The agency usually maintains a stockpile of 4,000 trailers but had even fewer on hand that summer, though nothing prepared it for the scale of displacement after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA quickly bought 200,000 or so mobile homes containing toxic amounts of formaldehyde. Fumes from the chemical can cause nasal cancer and aggravate respiratory problem, and studies have suggested links to leukemia.

Congress enacted the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which among other things, tried to identify alternatives to trailers. The act created the apartment repair program, and another ongoing pilot project called the "alternative housing pilot program".

The $400 million program is organized by FEMA and implemented by four state agencies on the Gulf Coast. The state of Mississippi is the furthest along in its pilot. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, received $281 million of federal money to put up 3,000 pre-made cottages.

The houses cost between $30,000 and $50,000 depending on the number of bedrooms, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for MEMA. The program will expire in March 2011, and the agency has already started selling off the homes at a significant loss, with the prices of the homes ranging from $350 and $13,000 on auction, he said.

Krimgold, of Virginia Tech, designs eco-cottages for the alternative housing program, and he researched the pre-manufactured MEMA houses. He found that occupants of the MEMA cottages were "overjoyed."

The houses are much larger and feel more like a home, he said. In his eco-cottages, 40 of which will go up in coastal Mississippi, adaptations to the houses, such as the ability to connect to the sewage system, and energy efficiency make them environmentally friendly, he said.

Despite this, FEMA is not stockpiling pre-made housing and is maintaining its 4,000 unit stockpile of travel trailers, said Krimgold. Without a market created by the federal government, the alternative disaster housing market will not take off, he said.

Racusen of FEMA said the agency is evaluating this project, and a report that will include a multiyear social science and building science study will be prepared by the end of 2011.

"We will incorporate the best practices identified in this report into our existing disaster housing and recovery programs, as our current authorities will allow," Racusen said.

"It's also important to keep in mind that FEMA uses travel trailers, park models and mobile homes for temporary housing units," she said. "The travel trailers are used only when homeowners are expected to have their home repairs completed within six months, using the travel trailers allows them to be close to home as they complete their repairs."

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