Friday, February 15, 2008

FEMA Slammed for Using Toxic Trailers

FEMA, already a dirty word along the Gulf Coast, has taken another hit to its reputation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency came under new withering criticism Thursday after tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes in many of the trailers the agency used to house hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi.

''This is such gross incompetence. I really have not in my 10 years seen anything like this on the domestic front,'' said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said Thursday the agency would rush to find temporary housing for roughly 35,000 families now in its trailers. ''We're moving as fast as we can,'' he said.

The agency was forced to act after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that formaldehyde fumes from hundreds of trailers and mobile homes were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.

Critics, already angered at FEMA for its performance after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, faulted the agency for not responding sooner to concerns from storm victims that its trailers could be jeopardizing the health of occupants.

''It is simply inexcusable for FEMA to have a one to two year delay in addressing the serious health issues of these men and women along the Gulf Coast who have already suffered from the devastation of the 2005 hurricanes,'' said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.

''When the health of our people and our children and our families is at stake we cannot afford to wait, we cannot decide that we have to do more studies and conduct further analysis,'' he said.

Paulison said he hoped to have everyone out of trailers and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.

Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one point, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.

In an interview with The Associated Press after Thursday's briefing, Paulison acknowledged he could have done a better job of expressing sympathy for storm victims.

''I didn't want to get sappy out there in front of the cameras,'' he said, ''but the truth is that we really do care and we really are working hard to take care of the people's needs and get them out of these travel trailers and mobile homes.''

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the center's tests could not draw a direct link between formaldehyde levels and the wide range of ailments reported by trailer occupants. But the CDC urged people to move out as quickly as possible.

Lynette Hooks, a trailer resident, was outraged at FEMA. Since she began living in her trailer outside her damaged New Orleans home in October 2006, she said she has suffered headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.

''Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am. They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems,'' said Hooks, 48.

The CDC findings could also have disturbing implications for the safety of other trailers and mobile homes across the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday on Capitol Hill. But the CDC study did not look beyond the FEMA housing.

Paulison vowed that the agency would never again use the flimsy, cramped travel trailers to shelter victims of disasters. Mobile homes are generally roomier than trailers and considered less susceptible to buildups of fumes.

FEMA will press ahead with plans to supply leftover, never-used mobile homes from the twin disasters to victims of last week's tornadoes in the South, Paulison said. But the mobile homes will be opened up, aired out and tested first, he said.