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Thousands Stuck in Toxic FEMA Trailers Four Years After Katrina

Sep 1, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Four years after Hurricane  Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, some people in the region are still living in toxic trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  According to a report on CBS News, red tape is largely to blame.

At one point, as many 143,000 families  in the hurricane zone were living in toxic FEMA trailers. As anyone who reads this blog knows, FEMA’s response to the toxic trailer debacle was less than stellar. By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde,  an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

E-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the toxic trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA’s Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

In late 2007, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

But according to CBS News, some 2100 families along the Gulf Coast still call a toxic FEMA trailer home.  Many of these families are waiting for assistance from FEMA to finish repairs on their own hurricane damaged homes, which was promised but has yet to arrive. More than one FEMA trailer resident described going through a bureaucratic run-around with FEMA that has left them confused, exhausted, and without the means to move on.

CBS News tried to ask FEMA about the red tape problems that are keeping so many families in their toxic trailers, but it seems the agency may have washed its hands of the whole mess.  According to the report, FEMA responded that another agency, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had taken over responsibility for long-term housing of disaster victims in June.

A spokesperson for HUD told CBS  that the agency is working to lessen red tape road blocks so remaining FEMA trailer residents will have access to the programs that will help them move on.  But understandably, many of those still stuck in FEMA trailers are skeptical of such promises - they say they've heard them before.

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