By Greg Gerber
It was 12 years ago today – Aug. 29, 2005 – that Hurricane Katrina made landfall for the second time to unleash its destructive capacity on the Gulf region of New Orleans by killing 1,836 people and causing $108 billion in damage in 2005 dollars.
The RV industry valiantly rose to the challenge by sending tens of thousands of recreation vehicles to the region for displaced families to use as temporary residences as their homes were rebuilt. The industry also saw an opportunity to make a fast buck by slapping together some specially-designed “FEMA trailers” for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But, the industry soon paid a very expensive lesson for its greed. Thousands of people were sickened by formaldehyde poisoning and several class-action lawsuits were filed against dozens of the industry’s major players. The cases were headline news for years, stalling what was then record industry growth before the Great Recession wiped away those gains.
As Yogi Berra so famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Hurricane Harvey has dumped almost five feet of rain in parts of Texas, leaving Houston – the nation’s fourth largest city – under trillions of gallons of water. If spread equally over the lower 48 states, that would cover all land in 0.17 inches of water.
Officials have yet to bring out the mops because rain continues to fall. But, that’s not going to stop some enterprising RV dealers from seizing upon the disaster to scheme ways to make a quick buck.
Even though there are large RV dealerships literally under water in the Houston area that will need every available resource to rebuild their enterprises, the week won’t end before we see commercials from out-of-state dealers offering to sell temporary shelters to displaced Texas residents.
Those companies will begin buying excess inventory from RV dealerships all over the nation to resell into the disaster area. This year, that should be a hefty allotment. The RV industry, which normally starts its annual slowdown this time of year, will likely ramp up production beyond what it told the nation was “at capacity” earlier this summer.
The effort will expand what has already been a record-breaking year for the RV industry. However, if not done right this time, the short-term profit opportunity will be drowned out by another public relations disaster.
Coming to the aid of Americans impacted by a terrible storm is noble and honorable. Imposing junk on vulnerable consumers during a time of intense need is a completely different matter.
Yes, the industry should orchestrate a fast response to this natural disaster. It is the right thing to do. It is also acceptable to make a reasonable profit for the effort.
But, we don’t want to see $20,000 travel trailers unloaded for $40,000 just because an insurance company is under pressure to aid a desperate family. Nor do we want manufacturers to cut corners in order to construct a few more trailers per day on the assembly lines.
When the industry’s response is eventually put under a microscope, it cannot afford another lesson as the national news media reports and dissects stories of shoddy workmanship or inferior materials and its impact on disaster victims. I fear the media and government response will be far different in 2017 than it was in 2005.
Hurricane Harvey can either be a golden opportunity for this truly American industry to shine, or it will be the event during which the glimmer of goodness rusts away.
“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life….” — Deuteronomy 30:19