A year and a half after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA is auctioning off at fire-sale prices thousands of trailers used by storm victims, raising fears among mobile-home dealers that the government will flood the market and depress prices.
Mobile home dealers are finding that some potential customers would rather wait to make a deal on a used FEMA trailer than drop $25,000 to $40,000 for a brand-new one.
"People think they're just going to get to buy them for nothing," said Gale Crews, owner of Diamond State Mobile Home Sales in Hope, where FEMA is storing 20,000 trailers at the city's airport. Some of the FEMA trailers will sell for less than half of what they cost new.
Some critics of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the sale is emblematic of the way FEMA botched its handling of Katrina: FEMA ordered more trailers than it needed, it let many of them sit out in the open, exposed to the elements, and now, some fear, it is about to double-cross the trailer dealers.
FEMA spokeswoman Debbie Wing defended the agency, saying it "wanted to be prepared to house as many victims as possible" when it bought the trailers. She said the agency is now trying to lower its storage costs by reducing the number it is holding in reserve for the next disaster.
"We're being cautious not to flood the market," she said. "We appreciate the fact that these manufacturers sold us these units during the height of it."
Some trailers never used
FEMA spent $2.7 billion to buy 145,000 mobile homes and trailers after Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in August and September 2005, paying a bulk-rate price of about $19,000 per trailer, on average. FEMA now has 60,000 trailers in storage nationwide; several thousand of them — exactly how many is not clear — were never used.
The agency said it plans to sell the ones that suffered a lot of wear and tear from being used by storm victims. As for the never-used trailers, Wing said FEMA has no plans for the time being to sell those.
"Our efforts were not perfect. However, we created an emergency sheltering program that, with all its faults, provided shelter for unparalleled numbers of displaced evacuees," she said.
To dispose of the used trailers, FEMA is operating an auction through a government Web site. Wednesday evening, the agency had 47 trailers on sale from its Hope depot. Bids ranged from $5,191 for a 2006 Coachmen Spirit of America trailer with possible water damage and a missing stove grate, battery and other items, to $12,600 for a 2006 Sunnybrook RV Sunset Creek trailer with "no obvious exterior damage."
Hope has the largest stockpile of FEMA trailers, while others are stored at Selma, Ala.; Madison, Ind.; Cumberland and Frostburg, Md.; Carnes and Purvis, Miss.; Edison, N.J.; Jasper and Texarkana, Texas; and Fort Pickett, Va.
FEMA wants Hope to be a staging ground during disasters because it's close enough to the Gulf Coast to store trailers but far enough inland to be out of harm's way. The city is making the most of it, entering a $25,000-a-month contract with FEMA.
"They've got to be somewhere, and we've got the land and the infrastructure out there," Mayor Dennis Ramsey said. "It's economically good for the city."
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., said FEMA should send some of the Hope trailers to Dumas, where tornadoes hit Feb. 24. "This is a symbol of what is wrong with FEMA and why so many people have lost confidence in their very own government," he said.