FEMA trailer problems spur local company's 'Safehut'
Small, temporary home stores flat, bolts together quickly
Safehut co-owner Eric Smith looks at a furnished unit recently. Since building its first unit in December, Safehut has been displaying the 160-square-foot shelters at conventions and emergency-management shows. (Tom Benitez, Orlando Sentinel
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has used the boxy trailers that became common in Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina. But the trailers are costly to ship, take hours to set up and can become worn and moldy after a single use.
"They're easy to deploy. They don't require a lot of maintenance. You can store them in a warehouse or on a truck — 12 units high — in the same space where you can store one FEMA trailer," Smith said of the Safehuts. "We took all the things that went wrong with the FEMA trailer and fixed them."
The FEMA trailers used after Katrina were made with plywood, particleboard and carpet that decayed in humidity. Companies that manufactured the trailers agreed last week to as much as $43 million in settlements with hurricane victims who say they were harmed by formaldehyde in the trailers.
Since building its first unit in December, Safehut has been displaying the 160-square-foot shelters at conventions and emergency-management shows. Company officials also said they have provided information about the units to FEMA in the hope of selling or leasing the units for disaster relief.
"They [FEMA] told us that they are aware of our product," Smith said. A FEMA spokesman would not comment for this article about the trailers or other temporary housing.
In an industrial park just south of State Road 46 last week, three Safehut workers quickly assembled a Safehut from six panels, stacked 16 inches high, into a small, white home with three windows and a front door. They first erected four side panels that were hinged to the floor of the unit. Then they used a lift to place the roof on top and locked all the pieces together with an Allen wrench.
After it's assembled, the Safehut is furnished with an air-conditioning and heating unit; a water heater for the inside shower; a kitchen cabinet, sink, stove and microwave oven; and a couch that converts into a bunk bed. At 8 feet high, 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, each unit is intended to accommodate up to three people.
"It's using the Ikea philosophy," Smith said, referring to the Swedish company that sells easy-to-assemble furniture.
A Safehut sells for $20,000 to $30,000, depending on amenities, Smith said. A typical FEMA trailer of the same size costs up to $16,000 and takes four men more than five hours to put in place, according to FEMA's website.
Safehuts also can be used as offices, medical clinics or housing at temporary work sites such as military-training grounds or mining operations, Smith said. The company recently received an order from the Bahamian Defense Force for almost two dozen units.
Smith's father, David Smith, came up with the idea for Safehut about four years ago, using the same materials he used in the Sanford boat company he founded, Elite Craft. The company constructed its first Safehut last December, just before the elder Smith died of cancer. Sarah Smith and her brother, Eric Smith, now head the company.
Safehut is not the only firm to venture into manufacturing temporary shelters that can be erected or dismantled within minutes.
Elite Aluminum Corp. in Coconut Creek began making its Fold-Out Rigid Temporary Shelters (FORTS) last August. Made of insulated aluminum, FORTS can be folded out and erected in less than 10 minutes, according to marketing director Elan Zadok. Slightly larger than Safehuts, FORTS have 260 square feet of interior space.
"We came up with the idea because of the problems with the FEMA trailers," Zadok said. "Logistically, you can't store them [FEMA trailers] inside. When they're not being used, they sit in a field and rot and become worthless. But with a shelter like ours, you can store them in a warehouse, you can clean them. And they have a shelf life of 30 years. ... And with a FEMA trailer, you can only put one or two on a flatbed truck, whereas ours you can put six."
Jim Ayotte, executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association, said the new shelter concepts could make it possible to have thousands of temporary homes on hand.
"If we could build these homes beforehand and then store them until a disaster happens, then that makes a great deal of sense."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5718