Katrina Isn’t Over

Since Maha started today with a post about one government cover-up, I thought I’d post this item about another. I wrote about it last week on my own blog, but since then this story seems to have failed to penetrate the broader media. I’d hate for it to be missed. – Paul

What’s worse than having your house destroyed and being forced to wait for a FEMA trailer to live in?

Having to live in that FEMA trailer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency’s lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we can now add George Bush to the list of leaders who gassed their own people?

It’s clear that, despite the embarrassment of Katrina, FEMA’s morally upstanding, gung-ho, do-what-it-takes-for-the-disaster-victim attitude is just as strong as ever:

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

Of course, they did have reason to expect that, if they did do testing they’d find problems. Because problems existed.

FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation.

“Yeah, people are dying, but before we do anything, we really need to check with the lawyers.” Nice. Of course, now FEMA has reversed itself and has ordered tests. Why?

On the eve of yesterday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use.

How about that? Oversight. Imagine.

But revelation of the agency’s earlier posture — in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress — attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA’s indifference to storm victims and said the situation was “sickening.” He said the documents “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance” and added that “senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and “mischaracterized the scope and purpose” of its own actions. “FEMA’s reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency’s litigation position,” Davis said. “FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”

About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.

Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.

You can see why the FEMA folks might want to make Congress subpoena the records instead of just handing them over. What a swell bunch of folks. They’re still doing a “heckuva job.”

6 thoughts on “Katrina Isn’t Over

  1. I’m not an expert, but….
    Huge, messy issue, but my sense is that one reason for FEMA’s reluctance to do testing is that it may be huger and messier than the health of a few unfortunate flood victims. From the pictures I’ve seen, FEMA trailers appear to be just off-the-shelf large travel trailers. From the outside, at least, they look just like any of hundreds you’ll see on the interstate. I’d guess that the interiors are just as typical. I’d also guess that the levels of toxins in the FEMA trailers are similar to those of most other travel trailers. Given the sorry state of most of our regulatory agencies, it could be that travel trailers just weren’t tested for environmental toxins until they entered whatever regulatory universe the FEMA trailers inhabit. Granted, the exposure of a typical vacationer will be much briefer than a full-time trailer dweller, so health risks won’t be as great, but I smell a larger oversight in the oversight department.
    Like I said, just speculation on my part, does someone better informed than me care to comment?

  2. Maha, have you watched the reporting of the floods in England. It looks like a mini Katrina. Some people have been evacuated while others contiune to live in flooded homes without water or electric…but everyone seems to be getting water to drink and waters have yet to start to receed. It’s just amazing…people have not been left to die in their homes, hospitals, nursing homes, or evacuation centers. The British government seem so prepared to respond to disaster.

  3. I actualy saw a newscast about this FEMA debacle (including Waxman’s outrage) earlier in the week (don’t recall the day or channel), and so the story is fortunately not quite as silent as it seems.

    jerri (#2) – I also saw this + the fires in southeastern Europe on the news (the BBC), and was struck not by European standards of care for their population, but by how extreme our weather is becoming. The voices kept mentioning temps of “40 degrees” which I translated to about 100 Fahrenheit. The global warming deniers should be forced to stare at these newscasts until their meaning sinks in.

  4. Dale, you’re right that part of the problem is that FEMA is using these trailers for purposes other than intended. They simply weren’t meant to house families for months through the heat of southern summers. Exposures for people using them for a week or so periodically on camping trips when most of their time is outdoors anyway would be far less. I haven’t researched the trailer industry to know what, if any, regulations exist for out-gassing of materials, but I expect they allow a level that, while more than I personally would or could tolerate, might arguably be acceptable for their intended use, particularly with enough ventilation and time post-manufacture for the volatiles to cook off.

    However, the possibility that the toxics in trailers might be a problem once FEMA started using them wholesale for long-term constant housing in the deep south was pretty obvious, and one of the many reasons why Katrina Cottages were proposed as a superior solution. I’ve often fantasized about a flood response that involved deploying thousands of pre-fab, architecturally sound, expandable cottages instead of toxic, and ultimately disposable trailers, but that fantasy universe has an FDR as President, not a Bush.

    Jerri, the contrast with the British floods is clear, and a reminder of what should have happened here, but didn’t. Comedian Jon Stewart had a bit about that on his program, asking ‘correspondent’ John Oliver how the British government had responded to the worst flooding in its history.

    Oliver’s answer: “Well, the way any self-respecting Western democracy would respond to a water-based calamity: they provided security for affected areas, they distributed bottled water, and shelters were immediately open to keep all residents safe. Even the black people.”


  5. An update of sorts: Here’s a chart (PDF) showing all the offers of post-Katrina aid from other countries, including all the stuff the State Department refused, possibly because the Secretary of State was busy shopping for Ferragamos on Fifth Avenue.

  6. Biggerbox,

    Thanks for the response.
    I like the Katrina cottage concept. The small cottage with core bath, kitchen, and electrical hardware can be expanded into a “real” house. On-site assembly would provide some jobs while the trashed local economy recovers. And they actually look like a house, I think the neighborhood watching something like them spring up one by one would have a greater sense of community renewal than if it watched a series of square aluminum vehicles being plopped down in front yards. To be a viable concept we need to figure out a way to get Halliburton involved.

    Concerning travel trailer safety, it’s probably true that most trailers are purchased by short-term vacationers. But a sizable fraction are used by snowbirds, seasonally migrating retirees who live in them continuously for months at a time.

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