Federal gov’t may reuse toxic FEMA trailers

National News
Federal gov’t may reuse toxic FEMA trailers
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer

(FinalCall.com) - Despite findings of formaldehyde, toxic mold and promises to never use them again, the government is planning to house disaster victims in FEMA trailers again this hurricane season as a last resort, according to federal officials.

“We’re putting our head in the sand,” said deputy administrator Harvey Johnson. “If we had a Katrina again, there’s probably no way we could respond to a Katrina without having to deploy all available options, which will include travel trailers.”

According to a draft of the agency’s five-page 2008 hurricane season plan, only the FEMA director has the authority to approve the reuse of such trailers, which are supposed to meet the agency’s requirements for low formaldehyde levels. The plan says disaster victims would be limited to six month stays and emphasizes the need for FEMA to immediately make damaged homes habitable until more permanent repairs can be done.

Hurricane season started June 1 and will last through November. Forecasters are predicting an above average season with a series of six to nine hurricanes forming in the Atlantic—including nearly five major storms.

Is the reuse of these trailers a good idea? Jimmy Hatheway, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, said his family of five stayed in a FEMA trailer for months after flooding wiped away his home in New Orleans. “Just when you think this government can’t get any worse, they take it even further. With all of the reports of sickness caused by those trailers, they are considering putting people back in them? They have no respect, love or care for the American people. My children are still sick from those waste dumps!” he said.

The Bush administration and FEMA are not strangers to this type of criticism as both came under fire for a negligent response to Katrina in 2005. Out of the over one million people displaced, thousands were sent to live in emergency travel trailers. Complaints of headaches, nosebleeds, skin infections, dizziness and other ailments began to arise from people living in trailers.

Testing disclosed that the trailers had high levels of formaldehyde, which is commonly used in building materials. Scientific studies show prolonged exposure may lead to cancer. According to FEMA, nearly 500 families remain in trailers.

As an alternative to the trailers, FEMA is preparing their “Katrina Cottages,” which are small homes but larger than a trailer.

Mr. Johnson said FEMA will be asking states to decide which disaster housing unit is desired and where units should go.

“But there should be more scientific studies to determine what are suitable housing units for disaster victims,” countered Attorney Raúl Bencomo in a television interview. He is representing hundreds of trailer occupants in Mississippi and Louisiana suing companies that manufactured the trailers. FEMA has blamed manufacturers for the health problems.

“The government is in a quandary because they really don’t have enough housing to be able to deploy safe housing in a major catastrophe,” Mr. Bencomo added.

According to FEMA, all of the units are to be tested for formaldehyde before redeployment. “Do you really think we can trust these people again? It seems like they wake up planning to lie to us. If something bad strikes this country again, I feel for those who will leave their safety into the hands of this government,” said Mr. Hatheway, who now lives in Houston.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control tested 358 travel trailers, 82 park models and 79 mobile homes. The CDC found average levels of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air, significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 parts per billion.

“It’s tragic that when people most need the protection, they are actually going from one disaster to a health disaster that might be considered worse. Given the longer-term implications of exposure that went on for a significant period of time, people should be followed through time for possible effects,” Christopher De Rosa, CDC assistant director for toxicology and risk assessment, told the Denver Post.

“It troubles me that three years after Katrina, FEMA has yet to come up with legitimate alternatives to travel trailers,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss). He has introduced a bill that would require FEMA and CDC to provide health screenings for Gulf Coast residents who lived in the trailers. “Monitoring the health of a few thousand children over the course of a few years is a step in the right direction, but we need commitment,” said the lawmaker.

A survey of New Orleans homeless residents conducted in February by Unity of Greater New Orleans found 80 percent of respondents had at least one physical disability, 58 percent had some form of addiction, 40 percent had a mental illness and 19 percent had all three problems. The organization asked Congress to include $76 million in a supplemental war appropriations bill to help fund rent subsidies and services for 3,000 homeless New Orleans residents with disabilities.