Cover Story

Up in Flames

Occupants of FEMA trailers, already sickened by formaldehyde, also face a high risk of injury or death due to trailer fires.

Ernestine Robinson was about to make gumbo. John Meyer was getting ready for work while his wife slept. Sixteen-year-old Delffon Creighton was getting ready for school. Others were winding down after a long day of rebuilding their post-catastrophe lives, and one couple had just entered its newly installed temporary home for the first time.

Each of these people was injured or killed in Louisiana since January 2006 when propane fumes in the FEMA trailer they occupied suddenly exploded. After coping with hazards posed by formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, hurricane-displaced residents of the Gulf Coast now face another danger: the risk of a flash fire ' or even sudden explosion ' in their temporary homes.

At least five Louisianans have died in these fires, which are thought to have occurred when gas from open liquefied petroleum, or propane, burners built up inside the units and was accidentally ignited. At least nine other people have been injured in Louisiana from propane-related flash fires in FEMA trailers, and propane-related explosions have kept fire departments scrambling throughout the Gulf Coast since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While many trailer fires and explosions can be attributed to discernible causes, others leave firefighters and investigators stumped. Many of the fires are blamed on trailer occupants themselves, but some are tied to shoddy installation and maintenance by FEMA contractors, according to fire investigators.

Marc Reech, arson chief for the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office, acknowledges an increase in overall trailer fires since the storms of 2005. Statistics provided by the office indicate a 25 percent increase in fires in mobile homes, RVs and other portable structures in its jurisdiction from 2004 to 2006. Of these, Reech says, 71 were fatal fires during the 2005-06 fiscal year and resulted in 96 deaths. In a more typical year, Reech's office deals with no more than 50 fatal fires, he says. Although data collected by the state specifically on FEMA trailers is lacking for that period, Reech concedes that trailers used for temporary housing have been fraught with fire hazards for several reasons.

Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge on the part of occupants, especially when it comes to overloading electrical circuits and power strips. "People are put into an environment they're not used to," Reech says. "[They] just gang up appliances on power strips. It takes a little education." Other fires in FEMA trailers can be attributed to propane accidents and even smoking in bed, but many remain unexplained. The almost total destruction of some of the trailers leaves few clues behind for investigators. Discerning the exact cause of fire in those cases has been extremely difficult, Reech says. "Call it a black hole. That's what it is."

Comprehensive statewide information on explosions and fires in FEMA trailers is lacking, partly due to differences in reporting methods from one jurisdiction to the next. The actual number of FEMA trailer explosions related to propane is unknown, but Andrew Thomas, a FEMA spokesman in Louisiana, says his agency is aware of 86 trailer fires in Louisiana post-Katrina.

In an e-mail response to questions, Thomas says FEMA has recorded six deaths linked to trailer fires in Louisiana, but the cause of the fires was not included in the statistics. At least 95 percent of trailer fires were due to "human error, in the judgment of fire departments and fire marshals, and from city or parish fire departments," he says.

In many of the 92,000 FEMA trailers placed in Louisiana, propane provided fuel for cooking. A common design for stoves used in these trailers is three top burners and an oven, with each component linked to one circuit for ignition. There are knobs to turn each burner on and off, and another to regulate the oven. The ignition switch is separated slightly from the burner knobs but is identical in size and shape. Although the ignition knob is stamped with the word "Spark," it could be difficult to tell it from the others in dim light. If occupants who smell gas and hurry to turn off an open burner instead twist the Spark knob, any gas that has built up will instantly ignite.

Trailer inhabitants aren't the only ones who lack familiarity with propane. A recent review of video-recorded meetings of the Louisiana LP Gas Commission Board shows prime contractors ' engineering firms such as the Shaw Group, CH2M Hill and Fluor Inc. ' also lacked sufficient understanding of propane systems when they received FEMA contracts worth several hundred-million dollars to install tens of thousands of trailers for storm victims. Setting up the trailers improperly increases the risk of explosions and fires, and LPGC regulations explicitly recognize this.

Louisiana law specifies procedures for safely transporting, refilling, exchanging and servicing LP gas tanks. It also addresses the installation of propane systems in travel trailers, motor homes, mobile homes and RVs. These laws require permits and other certifications for propane handlers and mandate proper training for commercial agents who set up travel trailer propane. The LPGC, a mostly governor-appointed regulatory committee, meets monthly to discuss statewide issues of propane compliance, issue safety permits and adjudicate violations. The commission can impose fines of up to $50,000 for violations and, under certain circumstances, can have offenders imprisoned.

It was before this board that the major three contractors for FEMA trailer installation and maintenance in Louisiana had to answer allegations they did not have the proper certification or permits to work on propane systems when they undertook no-bid, "price plus fixed-fee" federal contracts to provide housing for hurricane victims. Board records indicate none of the three had even applied for such certifications or permits until half a year later, after they were cited by LPGC inspectors. By that time, at least 80,000 trailers had already been installed. The violations were discovered after LPGC inspectors looked into the companies' operations in response to reports about a surge in trailer explosions in the state.

Inspector Terry McLain was one of the first to discover the problems with FEMA contractors when he investigated the first known trailer explosion in January 2006. In that incident, two contract workers in Harvey were severely burned when the trailer they were preparing for delivery exploded. The blast was linked to propane. McLain's investigation revealed that neither of the injured workers possessed competency cards or permits to install or service propane systems.

Investigators concluded that the workers had set up the system, then left for lunch. While they were away, propane leaked into the unit. When they returned to complete the work, they accidentally triggered an explosion and flash fire that blew out a window, melted a shower curtain and window shades, and even melted the safety vests the two men wore, McLain says.

After looking into the Harvey explosion, "We started asking questions," McLain says. The answers he got from Shaw Group, the workers' employer, raised a red flag. In addition to the permit violations, the company had not completed a required pressure test, a standard diagnostic conducted on travel trailers and campers to ensure propane systems have no leaks. Shaw representatives admitted they were not carrying out the tests. Although investigators found that the Harvey explosion was caused by a propane stove burner that a worker had left open, the accidental explosion revealed the larger issue of propane safety and legal compliance. "We came to a conclusion that we had multiple companies here that were not in compliance with Louisiana law," McLain says.

As he and other inspectors looked deeper into contractors' compliance with propane laws, they found several more violations. In the aftermath of a Slidell trailer explosion that claimed the life of John Meyer in April 2006, investigators found that Fluor Inc. also lacked proper permits and had failed to carry out the required pressure test on Meyer's unit when it was installed. "We gave them every opportunity to produce the report, and they couldn't," McLain says. Inspectors' efforts to get FEMA contractors to comply on their own were unsuccessful, he says.

"We've been dealing with them face to face since January," McLain told the LPGC during a meeting in July. "[It's] like dealing with used car salesmen on the seedy side of town."

McLain and other inspectors began issuing citations and established a training program for workers in the spring of 2006 to help them comply. Inspectors organized crash courses to instruct contractors and subcontractors on proper propane installation and maintenance. McLain even developed and distributed study guides to familiarize participants with state propane rules in the hopes that they would obtain the proper permits and safely maintain the thousands of trailers for which they were responsible.

"I do remember having a gymnasium packed with contractors that we attempted to give basic, minimum knowledge and training to," McLain says. That was in the spring and early summer of 2006.

Despite those efforts, more FEMA trailers exploded in Louisiana over the course of the year. Most incidents were propane-related, McLain says, and often resulted in flash fires that caused severe, even fatal injuries. Other similar fires destroyed dozens of the temporary shelters.

Propane systems are inherently hazardous and, in the case of FEMA trailers, the possibility of a damaged or otherwise unsafe propane system is compounded by the fact that the trailers were often transported long distances from the factory to local staging areas. During transport, propane appliances and hoses might have been jarred loose, and road hazards may have damaged units in less visible ways. "Some appliances might not have been tightened correctly" during manufacture, McLain adds, "so that's the reason we make them [carry out pressure tests]. That's the reason, if you go [to a dealer] and buy an RV, it's going to be pressure tested before you leave with it."

Despite the importance of the testing, the LPGC found that many FEMA-supplied trailers were not properly set up for propane use, particularly in the first six months after Katrina and Rita. In the course of the board's handling of the issue, attorneys and representatives of the contractors pleaded their cases regarding citations and violation reports. During LPGC meetings in April and May, representatives from Shaw Environmental said that 24,000 trailers the company had installed had not been pressure tested at that time, and Fluor Inc. admitted the same for 28,600 trailers it installed. In the same meetings, Fluor representatives said their own "in-house" testing of 7,000 units revealed a 6 percent failure rate for propane systems. The majority of these failures were caused by external cylinder leaks or issues with outside hoses. If that rate was accurate, it was possible that up to 1,700 of Fluor's units alone had propane-related problems. It is unknown whether any untested units exploded before they were finally checked out.

In the LPGC board meetings, contractors were cooperative and laid out ambitious plans for retroactive testing of the tens of thousands of trailers that had not been certified for propane safety. Inspectors in the field, however, found that the companies sometimes submitted questionable or incomplete inspection reports, and the test results inspectors requested were slow in coming or did not arrive at all.

After the crash courses in propane safety, inspectors began checking for compliance. Baton Rouge-based Shaw was cited once for failing to complete required inspections and tests; San Diego-headquartered Fluor Inc. and Denver-based CH2M Hill each were cited twice on similar charges.

The two charges against CH2M Hill represented random assessments of the company's compliance with propane regulations, McLain says. Last March, months after notifying contractors about propane regulations and weeks after establishing the training sessions, inspectors asked each contractor for documentation of pressure tests on their five most recent installations. Few complied at once, and some admitted that they didn't have the proper paperwork, McLain says. CH2M Hill was asked to produce its reports on March 20 and submitted pressure test reports three days later. However, all five tests had been conducted after the 20th. When inspectors visited the trailers that had been tested, occupants in two of the households denied the company had carried out the tests. McLain then filed charges against CH2M Hill. (The company declined comment on the matter for this story.)

At the same time, other violation citations were issued against the Shaw Group subsidiary and Fluor. Both companies were charged with three permit violations each, in addition to failures to inspect and test trailer propane systems.

Hearings on all those charges were held in May, and the LPGC Board handed down guilty verdicts against each. Shaw Environmental and Fluor were found guilty of all permit violations, and CH2M Hill was found guilty of inspection and testing violations.

Each company was assessed financial penalties, the bulk of which the board suspended "upon compliance and provided there are no further violations for one year." In CH2M Hill's case, the total $600 penalty for both charges was suspended. Two months later, CH2M Hill appealed the guilty verdicts and asked the board to readdress the charges. At a July hearing, the board vacated the guilty verdicts against that company and dismissed both charges. The same resolution was applied to the inspection and testing violations of the other two major FEMA trailer contractors.

By July, the three prime contractors for FEMA trailers had been granted proper permits. By that time, at least nine more businesses also had won contracts for FEMA trailer and mobile home maintenance in the state. LPGC case dockets reveal that many of these new contractors lacked proper permits, cards of competency and insurance certifications for their FEMA-related propane work. Several were cited for violations identical to the charges leveled against the big three. Just like the original trio, these new contractors applied for permits months after signing the contracts and beginning work.

To date, other than the January 2006 explosion in Harvey, no investigation has conclusively linked any FEMA trailer explosion to an individual contractor's actions. What's more, Arson Chief Reech's "black hole" of burned out trailers that prevents some fires from being fully investigated and the lack of pressure-test reports from initial installations means that any investigation is likely to yield inconclusive results.

FEMA keeps tabs on incidents of trailer fires, but every Louisiana fire jurisdiction keeps its own reports, and the state fire marshal's office only serves areas of the state not covered by municipal or parish fire departments. There is no central collection of Louisiana fire statistics by any state agency, so investigators are unable to ascertain statewide trends.

FEMA did act quickly to address at least one safety issue. Since the ignition knob and burner knobs in many FEMA trailers were made of nearly identical black plastic, FEMA called for contractors to paint the ignition knobs on propane stoves red to set them apart from the others. LPGC inspector McLain credits this small step, which he suggested to federal officials after a stove-related fire sent Ninth Ward evacuee Delffon Creighton to the hospital, for a reduction in the number of propane-related explosions in recent months.

They continue to happen, however. On Oct. 1, a FEMA trailer exploded in eastern New Orleans, sending a couple to a burn center in Baton Rouge. An investigation into the cause of that fire is ongoing.

Thousands of hurricane evacuees have been exposed to an elevated risk of accidental propane fire because of the way their trailer homes were installed. Despite that trailer parks throughout the Gulf Coast are being decommissioned, the hazard may remain. Inspectors are concerned that thousands of trailer homes were installed by workmen unfamiliar with the propane components of the units. In addition, these untrained workmen have not always effectively communicated the hazards of propane to those who move into the trailers, McLain says. In the case of Katrina and Rita evacuees in Louisiana, this mutual ignorance has had deadly consequences.