Another heckuva job. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, FEMA purchased 120,000-145,000 house trailers in no bid contracts to house evacuees. Many were not used, in those that were, occupants soon began to complain of noxious odors and respiratory problems. The culprit was formaldehyde used as a wood preservative. It is also a carcinogen. Despite the complaints, FEMA refused to test the trailers. In a June 16, 2006 email, FEMA lawyers stated that such testing "would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue." In the summer of 2006, the Sierra Club tested 32 trailers and found formaldehyde levels high enough in 83% of them that they would have required federal workers to wear respirators if exposed all day to them. Nevertheless, the formaldehyde story did not break in a big way until a year later. On August 2, 2007, FEMA announced it would stop selling or donating the trailers. Although some 65,000 trailers were still in use, as of October 2007, FEMA had not tested any of them.
Before its announcement between July 2006 and July 2007, FEMA through the GSA sold off 10,800 trailers to whoever wanted them for 40 cents on the dollar. FEMA also sold another 864 directly to evacuees. On January 17, 2008, the government announced, due to concerns about formaldehyde, it would buy back these trailers at their original cost. As of this date, 40,000 trailers were still being used by evacuees.
On July 9, 2008, Jim Shea, chairman of Gulf Stram Coach, which sold 50,000 trailers to FEMA testified before Congress that his firm knew of high levels of formaldehyde in its trailers but deemed it “irrelevant information” because FEMA was already aware of the problem and had decided against further testing. You could call this the FEMA-industry version of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.