FEMA dragged its feet on toxicity in trailers

While Katrina victims living in FEMA trailers suffered myriad illnesses, the agency was worried about liability.

Published July 20, 2007 4:17PM (EDT)

Under "Brownie," it seemed as if FEMA's big problem was incompetence, but now, apparently, that incompetence has been replaced by something else entirely. At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday, it was revealed that as complaints about "toxic gas" inside those infamous FEMA trailers came rolling into the agency last year, instead of fixing the problem, the Federal Emergency Management Agency went to its lawyers. And what did its lawyers say?

According to committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who read the offending e-mails aloud at the hearing, "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." And: "We do not do testing because it would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." Classy.

The Washington Post reports that in March 2006 agency workers found levels of formaldehyde that were 75 times the recommended limit inside trailers where evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were living. FEMA's response? Change the way it did the test. As Waxman described it, "Instead of simulating actual living conditions, which would show high levels of formaldehyde, FEMA directed that the trailers be tested with their windows open, their ventilation fans running and their air conditioning units operating 24 hours a day."

In July 2006, Newsweek ran an article detailing the problems, and the next month the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that "House Democrat[s] are pressing the federal government to speed testing for formaldehyde in travel trailers being used by hurricane evacuees along the Gulf Coast after an environmental group reported finding high rates of the dangerous gas." That environmental group was the Sierra Club, which tested FEMA trailers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama and found levels of formaldehyde above Environmental Protection Agency standards in 88 percent of them.

Several of those who had lived in the trailers testified before the committee yesterday, including a man who bought his own testing kit to confirm his suspicions that his wife's bloody noses and his pet bird's lethargy (which cleared up within an hour of being taken outside) were caused by gases in his trailer, and a woman who suffered preterm labor and gave birth prematurely while living in a FEMA trailer.

"The idea of our home making us sick was not really something that we were ready to grasp, since we had no other place to go," testified the woman.

FEMA director R. David Paulison said that "we have been proactive in reviewing the situation," but his response to some of Waxman's questions seemed to belie that statement:

Waxman: After you received these results, your attorneys put out a statement -- e-mails that imply that FEMA's going to own this issue if you do testing. That shows a complete indifference to the welfare of the families living in these FEMA trailers, because no testing was done, and your lawyers said if you do testing, you may start owning the problem. What do you make of that?

Paulison: The attorneys are hired for a particular reason, and they are there to protect in litigation. However, the department did not stop dealing with the formaldehyde issue regardless of what the attorneys said.

Waxman: Did you test any other occupied trailers?

Paulison: We did not test occupied trailers.

Though Paulison admitted that FEMA "may not have dealt with it in the best manner we could have," he assured the committee that "we wanted to do the right thing and we thought we were doing the right thing at the time."

How comforting.

By Julia Dahl

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