Every investigation is a journey. This one starts at an airstrip two-and-a-half hours northwest of Houston.
When Channel 2 Investigates showed up to the front gate, we introduced ourselves and asked, “Is it possible if we can take cameras into the facility here?”
A security guard quickly and kindly shot us down. “Oh, no they don't do any photography inside."
This is not a top-secret government facility. This is Hearne, Texas. Tiny enough to be a spec on the map.
There is not much action in town, but there is plenty of business behind the tall fencing at the local airport.
Perhaps the reason they do not want any cameras around is because the government does not want you to see what Sky 2 captured one early Saturday morning in January. Dozens upon dozens of FEMA trailers, designated for use after Hurricane Harvey, ready to be sold at massive discounts. These are units deployed after the storm.
However, Channel 2 Investigates discovered some are brand new, never lived in -- and the feds are selling them to the highest bidder.
Anita Schiflett nearly lost everything in Harvey. Channel 2 Investigates recently asked her to describe FEMA.
Her response? "I'm not allowed to say that. I don't want to say that word."
Schiflett and her family did qualify for FEMA housing. A FEMA government contractor informed them they had room for a manufactured housing unit.
"Oh yeah there is plenty of room here, there is no question, no problem and then we get the RV,” she explained in a recent interview.
However, instead of a manufactured home they received a 28-foot travel trailer. "As soon as they brought that trailer here we were fighting."
She was battling for one of FEMA's MHU units. "They promised it, but they gave it to somebody else."
So imagine her reaction when Channel 2 Investigates showed her what we discovered on the federally owned GSA auctions website -- FEMA trailers being auctioned off to the highest bidder. For weeks, we monitored the auction of FEMA trailers, the vast majority of them 2016, 2017 and 2018 models. We found units with unwrapped new furniture. The opening bids? $100.
Donnie Gannaway makes it clear where purchased his unit. "I bought it from the FEMA sale."
Gannaway met with Channel 2 Investigates days after picking up his new purchase in Hearne. "I think I got this trailer for $19,244."
Inside of Donny's 2018 Southern Energy model, we found a sparkling new oven, an immaculate fridge with paperwork still inside, even an activation tag in the smoke alarm. There were new drawers, spotless carpet and a mattress still wrapped in plastic. Most revealing? Documents detailing a manufacture date -- months after Harvey.
Gannaway’s reaction? "It's amazing. I can't explain it but they have their way of doing things, and why? I don't know."
The state says FEMA is reimbursing them nearly $45,000 for units like the one Gannaway purchased. The federal agency admits to Channel 2 Investigates their average price point is $64,500 when they buy the units, with some topping out at $70,000. However, it is important to remember that Gannaway bought his never-lived-in trailer at auction for just over $19,000.
FEMA admits it periodically sells "surplus" housing units, adding that manufactured homes "never occupied, but stored for several years" begin to fail with time.
Keep in mind Channel 2 Investigates found trailers that were like new and stored for less than a year.
The message from Schiflett surrounding these trailers: "We are going to need them again. These areas are going to flood again."
Gannaway’s perspective: "I would save them and reuse them."
Channel 2 Investigates did reach out to two congressional rookies who campaigned hard on issues related to Harvey, Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher and Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Both have legislative oversight over FEMA and both of their offices were informed of our findings, but both failed to accommodate us for a formal interview. Channel 2 Investigates hopes to sit down with them in the near future.
On Thursday, Channel 2 Investigates will show you who's buying these FEMA trailers and where they are ending up.