The high cost of FEMA’s learning curve
By GREG GARLAND
Advocate Westside bureau
Published: Dec 3, 2008
The Federal Emergency Management Agency faced a daunting task as victims of Hurricane Katrina moved out of trailers that had been serving as temporary shelters since the 2005 storm.
What was to be done with the more than 100,000 trailers deployed along the Gulf Coast? Worse, 80 percent to 90 percent were small travel trailers built with unsafe levels of formaldehyde that limited FEMA’s ability to resell them to the public.
The easy answer, and probably the best one for taxpayers, was to tow the whole lot of them to scrap yards and recover whatever FEMA could get and be done with it.
But this is the federal government and things are never that simple. The trailers instead have been towed to 21 so-called “staging areas” around the country.
FEMA estimates the cost to transport, store and secure the trailers at $1,000 per unit, per year. That adds up to a yearly expense for taxpayers of more than $100 million.
Hardly chump change.
About 50,000 of the trailers are stored at two sites in Louisiana, in Lottie and Melville. Expenses for those sites show why costs are so high.
For one thing, authorities said they were not able to find suitable land to park and store the trailers among the 250,000 acres the federal government already owns in Louisiana .
FEMA instead leased land from private owners. The agency is paying $79,467 a month for a 447-acre site in Lottie, and $101,888 a month for a similar tract in Melville, according to contract documents.
FEMA paid hundreds of thousands more to improve the property, once used to grow sugar cane and soybeans and to graze cattle. Meanwhile, armed guards working under contract provide round-the-clock security.
Jim Stark, FEMA’s assistant administrator for Gulf Coast recovery efforts, said the formaldehyde issue caught the agency off guard and disrupted plans for disposing of the trailers.
The agency planned to sell the trailers to disaster victims who wanted to keep them, he said. Others trailers were to go to small staging areas where a quick decision would be made about whether to sell them to the public or hold them for future disasters.
The agency has since decided, because of the formaldehyde issues, to auction all of the small travel trailers as scrap.
While it is tempting to blame the mess on an inept government bureaucracy, academicians who study how organizations work say that isn’t necessarily why things go wrong.
“It would be easier if bad things came from decisions made by dumb people,” said Donald F. Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Problems tend to come instead from organizations that try to handle things that go far beyond their usual, proven practice.”
After its early failures in responding to Katrina, FEMA rushed to prepare a strategy for dealing with overwhelming housing problems that the devastating storm left in its wake, he said.
“The rush to get things done meant some things didn’t get done right,” Kettl said.
Still, as costs continue to mount, FEMA has yet to set any firm timelines for disposing of the trailers and clearing the staging areas.
Asked in a recent interview why the agency isn’t moving more quickly to dispose of trailers it knows are going to be sold as scrap, Stark responded: “I don’t know why we can’t move faster on that. We should.”
Taxpayers can only hope the agency finds a way to turn the page quickly on the trailer saga before any more money is wasted storing and securing trailers of little value.