Federal officials have bought thousands of temporary housing trailers in recent years despite repeated warnings from government and private industry inspectors that hundreds of the units were shoddily built, The Washington Examiner has learned.
Some of the flawed units could be headed to Hurricane Sandy victims in New Jersey and New York, but officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency stubbornly refuse to answer questions about the trailers or the companies building them.
The trailers were built by TL Industries, one of two related Indiana firms from which FEMA officials have bought a large share of the government's supply of temporary housing units for disaster victims since 2007.
Agency officials say they keep at least 2,000 trailers available at all times.
The problems were so widespread that FEMA spent at least $1.3 million in October 2011 to fix warped exteriors on 581 TL trailers at FEMA's Selma, Ala., facility, according to the agency's public contracting records.
Warped exteriors were only one of many problems identified by the inspectors, but a FEMA spokesman refused to discuss the Selma units, or whether repairs were needed on any of the other trailers in the inventory.
TL Industries has been paid at least $189 million by FEMA since 2007 for an unspecified number of trailers. A $289 million contract was awarded in September 2012 to TL's sister company, Recreation by Design, of Elkhart, also for an unspecified number of units.
Elkhart businessman Randall Rush owns both companies, according to Indiana corporation records. Rush did not return a reporter's multiple telephone calls seeking comment.
A former TL manager who requested anonymity told the Examiner that the company specialized in wholesaling gray market Recreational Vehicles before going into the trailer construction business.
Mike J. Gadwill, a former FEMA inspector, said he reviewed the company's Indiana production line in 2008.
He reported to his superiors and other federal authorities that "during the construction of the additional units by TL, we observed repetitive poor workmanship in the construction and poor repairs to faults we found," according to a statement obtained by The Examiner.
Despite Gadwill's recommendation that TL Industries quality "just wouldn't be acceptable to the private sector and shouldn't be accepted by the government," FEMA continued doing business with the firm.
Gadwill said he resigned after FEMA officials did nothing about the problems he found with the TL Industries units. He has had federal whistleblower protection by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel ever since and said he was recently interviewed by criminal investigators.
A spokesman for the OSC would neither confirm nor deny the investigation, but said it would not be unusual for a complaint filed in 2008 to still be open and unresolved.
Janice L. Regalo, a FEMA employee assigned to New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, drew similar conclusions about TL housing in 2008.
"They were poorly put together," she told The Examiner. "Just cheap material, falling apart in transit. It wasn't a quality unit at all."
Regalo also told the FEMA Inspector General and other federal authorities that "during my inspections of TL Industries units, it became apparent that the IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) testing procedures required by FEMA for formaldehyde were not being properly followed."
She told the Examiner, "I was directly told to accept those units. The units were coming in and we could smell the formaldehyde." Regalo said a FEMA supervisor told her "to accept them anyway."
Charles Saba, an environmental engineer then working for a private firm that provided inspection services, told The Examiner that he found the quality wanting during a 2010 examination.
"It didn't look like it was built well. You could see parts of the wall paneling popping off. You could see that the windows weren't installed properly," he said. "It was a real sloppy job in my opinion."
Jerry Brown, who worked for another private inspection firm providing services, said he would not live in the TL Industries units he inspected in 2009 at FEMA's Cumberland, Md., facility.
"I would not want to live in one of them for a year, much less three or four after a major hurricane or flood," Brown told the Examiner.
Forty TL units were recently shipped from the Cumberland facility for use by Hurricane Sandy victims, according to a FEMA announcement, but an agency spokesman would not say if any of them were among those repaired in Alabama.
UPDATE: FEMA trailers sit idle in PA
The Washington Free Beacon reports this morning that 92 FEMA temporary housing units sit unused in Pennsylvania only 145 miles from Hurricane Sandy victims suffering from cold and lack of help.
Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.