Congress has ordered a review of FEMA's manufactured housing unit program after a Baton Rouge man was found dead inside a unit with an allegedly faulty heating and air unit.
"He was baked to death in a FEMA trailer," said Cathy Landry, friend and caregiver to the blind, 84-year-old Everett Wilson.
On Thursday, Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, ordered FEMA to turn over records relating to flood recovery. He cited numerous problems with FEMA's manufactured housing program: trailers that cost more than new houses, units languishing unused on a staging lot, and Wilson's death.
Landry found Wilson unresponsive in bed on Oct. 25 in his trailer at 4250 Blount Road, where he was living after his home off O'Neal Lane flooded. Landry said she called authorities five times over 25 days to fix the heating and air in his trailer, noting the heat got so bad the day he died that unlit candles inside had melted.
When they entered the home, authorities found the thermostat reporting the temperature at only 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even as the ambient temperature climbed into the triple digits. "Attempts to turn off the unit would not stop hot air from blowing out of the vents," Chaffetz's letter states.
FEMA's response to the catastrophic floods that damaged much of south Louisiana in August ha…
Even after an hour and a half in a cooling unit at the morgue, Wilson's body temperature registered at 110 degrees Fahrenheit, said parish coroner Dr. Beau Clark. Brain damage can begin once body temperatures reach around 107 to 109 degrees, he said.
Clark ruled the death accidental hyperthermia — overheating. The temperature inside the mobile home registered 124.4 degrees, and air coming out of vents measured as high as 137.9 degrees, the coroner said.
Wilson lost his sight about 17 years ago when a tumor damaged his optic nerve, Landry said. She noted that the blinds over one of his windows were askew when she found him; she believes Wilson tried to escape out the window before succumbing to the heat.
Clark noted that Wilson had some health issues related to his advanced age, but none are believed to have contributed to his death.
Landry said she met Wilson decades ago, and he had been friends with her father. Over the years, he became part of her family, since his relationships with his own family were strained.
She said he was a U.S. Air Force veteran who had worked on machinery and put a high value on education. When Landry's daughter was in first grade, Wilson made her promise to get good grades. When she graduated high school near the top of her class years later, her "paw paw," as she knew Wilson, bought her a car.
For the amount of money FEMA is spending on temporary mobile homes for flood victims, the fe…
"I just want FEMA to stand up and admit they killed that sweet man," Landry said.
Thursday, residents at Leo's Park, the site on Blount where Wilson died, said they had moved into the park since the incident and did not know it occurred.
Wilson's unit is still there, the locks and knobs taped shut. A sign on the door reads "Do not enter or move this unit without notifying FEMA security."
Everett's death has raised questions about the safety of all trailers. Local Republican Congressman Garret Graves said his office received a call from an anonymous tipster who said he was involved in manufactured housing deployment and alleged the agency destroyed 60 to 80 faulty units following Everett's death. Graves said his office has yet to determine whether that's true, but if it is "that would have been an extraordinary waste."
In a prepared response, a FEMA spokesman wrote that they were notified of a death in a Louisiana manufactured housing unit in October but "have not identified any systemic issues within the manufactured housing units. Out of an abundance of caution, at that time, FEMA decided to replace the thermostats of the occupied MHUs manufactured before 2016 as a part of our regularly scheduled maintenance checks that occur about once a month."
The agency did not respond specifically to Wilson's death.
The circumstances leading to the overheating death demonstrate "a major screw-up," Graves said. Moreover, a review of FEMA's response to the August flood has found "so many flaws that really impeded the recovery" and "fleeced" taxpayers, he continued.
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Congressional staff first visited Louisiana to inspect the FEMA response in August, after the flood. They followed up on Feb. 15 and 16 when they collected information that was included in the recent records request.
Wilson's death is one of several concerns that's prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to demand FEMA officials turn their records over. Chaffetz, as chairman, has asked for documents listing deaths and injuries inside manufactured housing units, repair records and other data. He's also requested analysis of the program compared to other temporary housing programs like Shelter at Home, plus costs and policies associated with that program. Graves said the committee will use documents provided by FEMA to look at ways disaster response can operate more smoothly.
Chaffetz raised concerns about the length of time it took to deliver mobile homes to flood survivors, specifically noting that three weeks after the disaster, just one person was living in a unit while others sat unused. The committee is also investigating the efficacy of the Shelter at Home program, which Graves said he loves — in theory.
Facing intermittent shortfalls in some kinds of manufactured housing units, FEMA has contrac…
It would be great to allow people to move back into partially restored homes rather than using manufactured housing units, the congressman said. However, Graves pointed to a story in The Advocate that demonstrated that many of the people who were offered the program did not feel the work was sufficient and chose not to move back home. If the program is to continue, it needs to become smarter and less wasteful, he said.
"We have additional questions about the implementation of the Shelter at Home program, including the efficiency of the program, both in its execution and high administrative overhead costs," Chaffetz's letter states. "Reports of shoddy repairs performed at costs beyond value are an indication of a serious problem."