DHS OG Berates FEMA Over Trailers

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General yesterday released a report that dressed down the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its response to formaldehyde-contaminated trailers given by the agency to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

"Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, in our opinion, did not take sufficiently prompt and effective action to determine the extent of the formaldehyde problem in the emergency housing units once they were aware that such a problem might exist," according to the 85-page report.

The inspector general's report says nearly a third of all trailers had formaldehyde problems.

"FEMA and its contractors," reports the Associated Press, "shipped about 203,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and other models to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two of the worst storms in U.S. history. The hurricanes destroyed more than 300,000 homes in 2005 and displaced about 700,000 people."

The report says FEMA officials let a year pass while they studied how to reduce formaldehyde levels in unoccupied trailers while hurricane victims continued to live in trailers with dangerously high formaldehyde levels. When FEMA did tap the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the formaldehyde levels in occupide trailers, the agency "blocked the study on two occasions," according to the report.

"In general, in our opinion, FEMA did not display a degree of urgency in reacting to the reported formaldehyde problem, a problem that could pose a significant health risk to people who were relying on FEMA’s programs," the inspector general's report said.

Formaldehyde exposure at low levels causes irritations of the nose, eyes, and throat plus wheezing, coughing, and sneezing, while high concentrations can lead to fluid flooding the lungs resulting in death. Toxic trailer "victims reported bloody noses, blackouts, headaches and other more severe problems due to formaldehyde, a colorless, strong-smelling gas often produced in the manufacture of building materials and classified as a carcinogen," reports USA Today.

Many hurricane victims lived in FEMA-provided trailers parked outside their homes as they repaired them.

The inspector general's report also criticizes the agency for not developing a formal policy to deal with health complaints associated with the trailers. In the absence of a formal policy, FEMA adopted an informal policy of giving people with health complaints previously occupied trailers.

This had two results: hurricane victims that did not complain would languish in trailers that were toxic. However, since the occupied trailers given to those that complained were not tested for their formaldehyde levels, FEMA could have possibly switched one dangerous trailer for another.

The inspector general's report, finally, finds fault with FEMA sense of urgency regarding the toxic trailers, saying the agency only got serious after negative media reports surfaced.

"[I]nformation concerning the extent of formaldehyde in occupied FEMA units was not available until February 2008, more than 2 years after many of the affected residents moved into FEMA housing units," according to the report. "Effective action to obtain such information commenced only after the media reaction to formaldehyde in FEMA trailers grew to disturbing levels, causing senior DHS management to involve the medical professionals of DHS’ Office of Health Affairs and the CDC."

♦ Photo of FEMA trailer by Maitri/Flickr


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