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FEMA trailers making a comeback

Pity the lowly FEMA trailer, first the symbol of government failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then maligned as a "toxic tin can."

Lower Makefield Police Officers Michael Pell and Denise Siano show off the department's new mobile command trailer - a recycled FEMA home.
Lower Makefield Police Officers Michael Pell and Denise Siano show off the department's new mobile command trailer - a recycled FEMA home.Read moreJONATHAN WILSON / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Pity the lowly FEMA trailer, first the symbol of government failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then maligned as a "toxic tin can."

But today thousands of surplus FEMA trailers have become lifesavers for budget-strapped municipalities, school districts, police and fire departments, and nonprofits in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

Consider the array of local governments and agencies that are taking advantage of the federal leftovers: In Gettysburg, the county animal shelter will transform a FEMA trailer into a mobile spay/neuter clinic. In the struggling city of Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, a spanking new mobile home arrived and rescued EMS workers from their leaky building. Philadelphia will use one of its newly purchased trailers to hold emergency stocks of flashlights and hard hats.

"We were looking for a place to store supplies and equipment that did not need to be in a temperature-controlled environment," said Mary Ann Marrocolo, the city's managing director of Emergency Management and Preparedness. "This was a cost-effective way to move out stuff that we have that is crowding our offices."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency bought 145,000 trailers and mobile homes before and after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Many were never used, and during the two years after the storm thousands more were turned in after displaced residents found permanent housing.

So FEMA has made more than 8,000 trailers and mobile homes available to state governments to distribute to local municipalities. Over the last year, Pennsylvania's Department of General Services picked up 223 new and gently used, fully loaded trailers and mobile homes.

New Jersey officials said that state did not participate in the program.

So far, 15 trailers and mobile homes have been sent to Philadelphia-area municipalities and agencies for the cost of delivery ($4,500 for trailers, $8,000 for mobile homes) or less.

Philadelphia got two 26-foot trailers at the fire-sale price of $1,800 last month. (The state dropped the price to move trailers off a parking lot in Harrisburg to make room for the annual Farm Show.)

One will be used as a response unit for the regional Urban Search and Rescue team, and the other will function as a storage pod to help relieve crowding in the city's Emergency Operations offices. The alternative, say city officials, would have been to rent space at commercial prices.

Duquesne Emergency Medical Services, south of Pittsburgh, was in desperate straits last summer when mold infestation and a leaky roof damaged equipment and threatened the health of its staff.

Unable to move or to fund repairs, the nonprofit was thrilled to receive a fully furnished FEMA mobile home, now parked next to the dilapidated EMS building.

"I'm so grateful for the mobile home; we don't have water dripping on us or our laptops," said EMS executive director Mark Nemerovsky.

Across the state, 250 miles east in southern Chester County, West Nottingham Township's police department is enjoying similar new digs in one of the 60-foot mobile homes.

"It's an improvement over the attic space they occupied in the township building," said Gerald Cox, chairman of the Township Board of Supervisors.

Cox said the furnished mobile home will house the three-person police force and may also be used as overnight quarters for road crews on winter storm duty.

The Lower Makefield Township Police Department in Bucks County has turned a FEMA trailer into its mobile emergency-response unit.

Gone are the beds and dinette table, replaced with a desks for dispatchers, communications equipment and a conference table.

Capt. Tom Roche said, with back-to-back floods in the last two years, the trailer will likely serve as a command post the next time the Delaware River overflows its banks.

Whitemarsh Township in Montgomery County gave up a lease on office space and will soon move its Public Works Department into a FEMA trailer. Township Manager Christopher van de Velde said workers are stripping the trailer of its residential furniture and will add desks for the agency's director and his assistant.

He said the federal surplus system is a good use of local taxpayer money.

"Our taxpayers paid their share to the federal budget that bought the trailers, so I have no problem with getting them for the cost of delivery," van de Velde said.

The Adams County SPCA in Gettysburg persuaded the state to donate one to the shelter for a mobile spay/neuter clinic.

Director Scott McLaughlin said the shelter would save $20,000 in costs to build an addition.

"We have hopes this will help take care of populations of feral cats as well as allow us to do internal spay/neuter for animals in our shelter," said McLaughlin, who hopes to finish retrofitting the trailer and have it on the road "by kitten season" this spring.

It's uncertain when additional federal trailers will be available to help more local governments and groups. FEMA temporarily suspended the trailer-dispersal program last fall amid concerns about high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. State tests on the trailers have found no evidence of the toxic chemical, officials said.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania is offering a guaranteed-return policy.

"If the buyer has concerns about formaldehyde after receiving its trailer, we will take them back," said Ed Myslewicz, a spokesman for the Department of General Services.

A note to Pennsylvania municipalities and nonprofits: It's not too late to put dibs on one of the original FEMA trailers. State officials say 91 trailers are still up for grabs.