How many times can the federal government let down the victims of the hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast two years ago?
First there was the inept response to Hurricane Katrina by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which stood haplessly by as the water rose in New Orleans, bloated bodies floating in the fetid current. Then came the delay in providing temporary housing for tens of thousands of evacuees.
More than 66,000 of the victims still live in FEMA’s trailers, unable to return home. In a sickening twist to their woeful tale of neglect, it appears that their trailers have been poisoning them. FEMA, which knew of the problem for more than a year, ignored warnings from its own staff and avoided addressing it because it was worried about being sued.
A Congressional investigation has discovered that in March 2006, FEMA was made aware that trailers housing hurricane evacuees contained levels of formaldehyde that were up to 75 times the recommended safety threshold. Exposure to formaldehyde, a preservative used in plywood or particleboard, has been linked to vision and respiratory problems, allergies in children and cancer.
The agency received numerous complaints from occupants of the trailers. In June 2006, a man who had complained about formaldehyde fumes was found dead in his trailer. In July, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency advised FEMA that some of the trailers were likely to have levels of the chemical that were way too high.
Still, FEMA resisted performing a systematic investigation because, according to FEMA lawyers, this could make the agency liable for health problems. “Once you get results and should they indicate some problems, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them,” a FEMA lawyer wrote in June 2006.
FEMA says it has replaced 58 trailers because of concern about formaldehyde, and has moved five families into rental housing. In advance of hearings last Thursday by the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, it announced that it had asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the air quality in occupied trailers.
But calling that decision woefully late is an understatement. FEMA could have turned a new page following the ouster of the bungling Michael Brown, who led the agency through its dismal response to Katrina. But the new FEMA, under R. David Paulison, appears to be worse than incompetent. If its response to the current crisis is any guide, FEMA’s approach to crises consists of ducking for cover.