Flood waters rush in. Days of dire hurricane warnings may save lives but the filthy deluge ravages. A home left standing may be no better than one washed away. Either way, a family is immediately homeless.
For decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased and loaned mobile homes for families to use, often parked in their driveway while their house was made livable again. “FEMA trailers” have become a familiar part of American lexicon. They became too familiar for people who found themselves permanently displaced after a disaster. Some were allowed to buy them at a reasonable price, but it was far from a bargain in other respects.
In 2005, the hurricane season was a record-breaker, with Katrina and Rita hitting the gulf coast hard enough to change the shoreline. Ground zero was New Orleans. More than 145,000 trailers were brought in. More than a decade later, thousands of homes continue to molder after owners met with too many roadblocks to save them.
Less than a year after families found refuge in those trailers, they were reporting breathing issues, persistent flu-like symptoms, nosebleeds, and eye irritation. By 2008, FEMA had received more than 11,000 health complaints. The cause was almost certainly toxic levels of formaldehyde found in tested trailers, blamed on shoddy construction and substandard materials in a design aimed at temporary use. Formaldehyde was classified in 1987 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen in very high or prolonged exposures. Class action lawsuits were filed against FEMA, the manufacturers, and contractors.
FEMA has since changed its protocol to use trailers only as a last resort. It teamed up with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine guidelines for temporary housing to meet “real world, long-term needs,” meaning low-maintenance units that will last and keep the people living in them safe. The new plan called for diverting shelter funding toward quality, temporary, modular housing.
Enter Barbara Stokes and GSH of Alabama, LLC in Huntsville, Alabama. Just a few years prior, she and her husband, Scott, left their high-end jobs to be their own bosses, clearly with an eye on filling a vital niche. From her positions at Pisces Corporation and Boeing, Stokes brought expertise in the process of government contracting. Their team produced everything in-house, from design and permitting to the construction of a variety of jobs with custom specifications. They made a name for themselves in terms of quality and efficiency, whether it was site development, parking lot bollards, storage tanks or green communities and college dorms.
They would soon do the same as a disaster relief construction contractor.
GSH’s affordable, safe, high-quality, highly-functional MHUs are a practical solution to meet the demand in the aftermath of a disaster. They could be assembled in just a few days, with the help of local labor, creating a job market. An exacting design and manufacturing process means GSH delivers quality, affordable products on schedule.
FEMA also looked at what “temporary housing” means. Recent experiences have taught that when it comes to disaster relief, it might mean shelter for up to a year or more, with the possibility that disaster might strike again at any moment.
GSH housing units are built with that long-term objective in mind. The design meets heightened safety standards with smoke detectors and fire-suppression sprinkler systems and the ability to withstand winds up to 130mph.
Making trailers accessible meant adding entry ramps. GSH’s design builds in functionality throughout. And unlike the trailers of old, these are small, but real homes, with state-of-the-art kitchens, full baths and storage space. They are not one-size-fits-all. Interiors can be modified, and furniture is not screwed into the floor.
The MHUs are highly energy-efficient, and the safety upgrades make them very affordable to insure, both pluses when it comes to both short- and long-term needs.
For families attempting to rebuild their lives, being able to stay close is vital; to facilitate cleanup and rebuilding, to retain jobs and keep children in school and maintain a neighborhood support system. There is a significant psychological component to disaster recovery. Dealing with that kind of daily stress is something Stokes and GSH take into consideration.
The move from stable, corporate jobs to an independent contractor was not as risky as it sounds, given the couple’s foresight. The key was to do it right, and that meant intelligently, precisely and ethically. That process paid off. GSH is now on the FEMA Register as a Disaster Relief Construction Contractor prepared to assist, upon request, during an emergency situation caused by natural disaster. Moreover, GSH has provided services for the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Missile Defense Agency on various contract requirements.
A month after Hurricane Harvey made its unwelcome visit to the vulnerable Texas coast, inundating cities like Corpus Christi and Houston, GSH was awarded a $28.5 million contract to build, deliver and erect an untold number of MHUs. They were given until the following March. It seems like a tall order from their perspective, but Stokes looks at it through the eyes of the suddenly homeless. She no doubt thinks of her own three children, as well as the volunteer work she does in their community. She understands, she is compassionate, and that is the mindset on which GSH rests, or more accurately, finds its motivation.
It is reassuring to know that there is no “winging it” here. At Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, Stokes majored in biochemical engineering and physics and studied things that are very relevant now, such as manufacturing, management, and structures of properties and materials. Scott also brings education in engineering and appreciation for manufacturing precision as a former corporate jet pilot. As a result, GSH’s disaster housing has set a benchmark for the industry and demonstrates how giving can be fundamental.
As CEO and COO, to say Barbara and Scott are busy is an understatement. The same creative thinking, flexibility, and dedication that goes into their work allow them to keep family and community balanced within the bigger picture.