Sometimes temporary housing is not really temporary. Just ask the people on the Gulf Coast who spent years in FEMA trailers after the disastrous hurricane season of 2005. That was the year two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, displaced over a million people, according to the Department of Homeland Security. This massive upheaval created a housing crisis the likes of which this country has never known. One solution was to house people in travel-trailers.
    There was nothing inherently wrong with them. The trailers, I mean. And there wasn’t anything wrong with many of the people — until they lived in the trailers.
    The problem was these air-tight, formaldehyde-fume-filled trailers were designed for use on brief vacations, with the expectation that ventilation would mostly come from open windows. They were never meant to be inhabited for months on end, never mind years on end, with air conditioners and occasional open doors as the only means of air exchange.
    It wasn’t a conspiracy, just an oversight. Because the trailers are considered vehicles, not structures, the materials used to construct them did not have to meet HUD standards for off-gassing that apply to permanent homes.
    It took a while for FEMA to own up to the problem, though. And that’s me being polite. They ended up having a lot of explaining to do, including having to testify before Congress.
    And now, in the wake of that debacle, their newly-released 2008 Disaster Housing Plan is like a breath of fresh air.
    It’s relevant to us here in the Lowcountry because one of these days we may be the ones living in FEMA housing. It would behoove us to know what we might be getting ourselves into, literally.
    In its six-page Disaster Housing Plan, FEMA clarifies how it’s going to handle things if we end up with a Katrina-sized mess. The concept that gets the most play in the new plan is “interim housing.”
    Here’s the background: our notions of temporary housing work just fine in the case of a small disaster, like a chemical spill or a localized flood. You put people up in an apartment or travel-trailer until things get cleaned up, and you’re done.
    But when there is a cataclysmic disaster – one that destroys not hundreds of homes, or thousands, or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of homes – the level of complexity goes up by a factor of a gazillion.
    It creates a situation in which the federal government has the money, but not the authority, to create permanent housing, and the state and local governments have the authority, but not the money.
    The way the law works, FEMA has to stay out of the permanent housing business. The Stafford Act requires that FEMA provide only temporary solutions.
    Permanent housing is supposed to be the domain of state and local governments, private industry, not-for-profits, the faith community and individuals. But when a disaster has extinguished economic activity across an entire region, it leaves all the local entities, from individuals all the way up to governments, fiscally paralyzed.
    No jobs, no business, no tithes, no property sales, no taxes.
    That’s why all those home-repair crews from out of state churches are so welcome, and so very necessary. With a little bit here and a little bit there, they help fill that gap.
    That’s great, but it’s not enough. So FEMA is rethinking the way it provides housing assistance for these mega-disasters, and thus the new emphasis on what they call interim housing. This is housing that is intended to be inhabited for up to 18 months.
    The most notable change in policy: Just say “no” to toxic travel-trailers. That is, they will no longer enter into contracts for the manufacture of travel-trailers.
    That doesn’t mean they absolutely, positively will not allow people to live in travel-trailers. It means they have placed limitations on who, what and where and how long.
FEMA will issue travel-trailers here in the Lowcountry only if these criteria are met:
    The State of South Carolina has to specifically request them
    The State of South Carolina has to determine an acceptable formaldehyde level for them
    They can be placed only on private property
    Also, the only way you can get one is if your house will take less than six months to repair.         That’s a CYA because if they know, in advance, that it’s going to take more than six months your house to get fixed, they want to put you in something that has decent air quality.
    Because who knows, it might end up being years and years.
    FEMA’s new interim housing will take the form of mobile homes and park models. Mobile homes are considered residences so they have to meet HUD requirements. Park models, oh the other hand, are like big travel-trailers, but cuter. And because they are glorified travel-trailers, they don’t have to meet HUD standards.
    FEMA has set its own air quality standards, however. The agency says all of the new interim housing produced will be required to have indoor air levels of formaldehyde of less than .016 parts per million. And FEMA says it will test the units, just to make sure.
    We’ll see how it goes. Until they have a chance to try it out under real-world conditions, don’t hold your breath.
    Although maybe in this case you should.