Saturday, February 16, 2008

Death By FEMA All Over Again

The news story reads like a public safety alert:

After downplaying the risks for months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it will rush to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of roughly 35,000 government-issued trailers because tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency hopes to get everyone out and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.

"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," he said.

How fast?

How fast?

Now that's the issue?

Ugh. FEMA, this makes me so mad I could expose you to dangerously high levels of formaldehyde for two or more years... I'm boiling hot right now. I can't even... Let me just swallow it and try to explain without expletives.

Okay, so late this week, FEMA determined that the trailers that they distributed to victims of Hurricane Katrina have and always have had dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a chemical in cigarettes and embalming fluid known to cause cancer, not just in lab rats, but in human beings. The levels are dangerous enough that FEMA has determined that they must IMMEDIATELY relocate vulnerable people: the elderly, children, and anyone with health problems, especially asthma. People will be moved to apartments and hotels as soon as possible, relocations are to begin immediately. Those living in FEMA parks are also especially at risk and those parks will be shut down immediately after the sick and elderly are accounted for. FEMA hopes to have everyone out of trailers within the next few months. The summer heat can exacerbate the risks of formaldehyde exposure.

So how many people does this affect?

One thousand? Five thousand?


There are still more than 100,000 people still living in FEMA trailers all over Louisiana and Mississippi today.

That number does not include the thousands upon thousands more that once did live in FEMA trailers but have since renovated their homes. FEMA trailers have been poisoning Katrina victims since 2005. At one point there were 140,000 occupied FEMA trailers. Because a great deal of those were multiple occupancy units, there must be close to a half million people that spent significant time in a cancer can.

If you've spent even just two weeks inside a FEMA trailer, I'd advise you to contact a doctor and a lawyer. You've been exposed to dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.

The formaldehyde levels in some trailers were found to be high enough to cause breathing problems in children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory trouble, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said. About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, she said.
As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.

You've gotta give FEMA credit though, right? To find out this information and then take decisive action to relocate people to safer lodging is the right call, isn't it?

Well, it would have been the right decision if they weren't about two and a half years late.
It would have been the right decision if FEMA had indeed just found out about the risk.

They knew about the risk.

A long long time ago.

And they didn't relocate anybody, they didn't replace any trailers. They let thousands and thousands of our neighbors bake in stew of cancer-causing fumes last summer without so much as free paper towels for those experiencing formaldehyde-caused nose bleeds, without free cough drops to those experiencing formaldehyde-caused chronic breathing problems.

Last May, (that was around 8 or 9 months ago, but FEMA's not counting) CBS News obtained an internal FEMA document that lists formaldehyde exposure carrying the risk of cancer as a job hazard for its own employees charged with inspecting the trailers.

The Sierra Club did its own tests of FEMA trailers in May of 2006, almost two years ago now. Out of 32 trailers inspected, 30 were found to have formaldehyde levels above normal.

Here's how an MSNBC story from July of 2006 descibes all that:

Air quality tests of 44 FEMA trailers conducted by the Sierra Club since April have found formaldehyde concentrations as high as 0.34 parts per million – a level nearly equal to what a professional embalmer would be exposed to on the job, according to one study of the chemical’s workplace effects.

And all but four of the trailers have tested higher than the 0.1 parts per million that the EPA considers to be an “elevated level” capable of causing watery eyes, burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, and respiratory distress in some people.

That kind of makes it sound like FEMA was embalming residents of the Gulf Coast, doesn't It?

FEMA felt the pressure. In August of 2006, after the Sierra Club's tests and in the midst of a hot summer that compounded adverse reactions to formaldehyde exposure, FEMA issued a press release outlining their plans to test trailers for their formaldehyde levels. In the mean time, it prescribed methods for those wanting to "reduce their exposure":
  • Increase ventilation. Open the windows and door of the trailer and use fans to force stale air out and bring fresh air in.
  • Keep indoor temperatures cool. Heat does cause formaldehyde to increase the rate at which it releases fumes, so, after the trailer is well ventilated, keep temperatures cooler with air conditioning.
  • Lower the humidity. Like heat, humidity causes formaldehyde to release fumes, so keep the relative humidity at about 40 to 50 percent in the trailer.
  • Do not smoke inside. Tobacco smoking releases formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals.
What advice! A brochure given in the middle of August telling people that the best way to reduce exposure to formaldehyde in their homes is by simultaneously opening doors and windows while keeping the trailer temperature and humidity levels low.

Keep the trailer cool and dry with the windows open in the middle of August?

Have they ever been to the Gulf Coast during the month of August?

(That question really pisses me off to ask because we all know that they never have been. They infamously missed the opportunity to come see us late in August of 2005. Nonetheless, the September air is just as hot and just as moist.)

If you open the windows, it's going to get hot and humid in the trailer, you idiots!

And heavens, please don't smoke! You could be exposing yourself to formaldehyde!

So how were people supposed to reduce their exposure again?

When the FEMA press release dropped in August of 2006, Congressional Democrats demanded FEMA give up what they knew about formaldehyde. A year later, in July of 2007, that same Congressional Committee held two days of hearings on FEMA's failure to respond to formaldehyde risks. This is from Rep. Waxman's opening statement:

The FEMA documents depict a battle between FEMA field staff, who recognized right away that formaldehyde was a serious problem, and FEMA headquarters, particularly FEMA’s lawyers, who wanted to pretend it didn’t exist.

In March 2006, news articles reported high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers. FEMA field staff urged immediate action, saying: “This needs to be fixed today,” “we need to take a proactive approach,” and there is an “immediate need” for a plan of action.

But when the issue reached FEMA’s lawyers, they blocked testing of occupied trailers. One FEMA attorney explained: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. …Once you get results…the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

Another FEMA official wrote: the Office of General Counsel has advised that “we do not do testing” because it “would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.”

Early in the process, due to the perseverance of a pregnant mother with a four-month-old child, FEMA did test one occupied trailer. The results showed that their trailer had formaldehyde levels 75 times higher than the maximum workplace exposure level recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The mother evacuated the trailer. FEMA stopped testing occupied trailers. And top officials issued a statement that said: “FEMA and industry experts have evaluated the small number of cases where odors of formaldehyde have been reported, and we are confident that there is no ongoing risk.”


But FEMA knew of formaldehyde exposure problems well before the news media began to publish complaints in March of 2006. They knew of issues as early as December of 2005, and likely before that.

This story, out of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi is especially revealing:

...Jesse Fineran, a former Hancock County Emergency Operations Center hazardous material specialist, said he brought the issue to the attention of numerous federal agencies in the daily meetings Hancock County EOC with government representatives nearly two years ago.

Fineran's involvement began in October 2005, when his wife, who has asthma, needed aid after stepping into the couple's son's FEMA trailer. Fineran received a trailer a couple of months later, where his wife experienced the same problems. Fineran had both his son's trailer and his trailer tested for formaldehyde. He said Tests showed levels of 0.38 and 0.21 parts per million, respectively.

Fineran's son had his trailer replaced and Fineran received a special "product sensitive" trailer. Tests on these were 0.18 and 0.21 parts per million, respectively, Fineran said.
Fineran's wife is now living in Louisiana while Fineran lives in a FEMA trailer in Bay St. Louis.

Tests were done in trailers in November 2005 at a staging lot in Kiln, Fineran said. The tests, conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, showed not only above-normal levels in the trailers, but the background level around the staging area was also elevated, Fineran said.

"They knew people were suffering," Fineran said.

On December 14, 2005, a daily report of the meetings made by Fineran stated an official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found formaldehyde in FEMA trailers at a Kiln staging area. The data was provided to Bechtel, the contractor responsible for transporting and setup of trailers. Fineran said both Sid Melton, now chief of operations in Mississippi, and Michael Andrews, chief of mobile home operations in Mississippi, received the OSHA report in December 2005.

According to FEMA, a total of 47 trailers – 17 in Mississippi – have been swapped. Fineran said this number is low because FEMA would only replace a trailer after venting and the applicant specifically mentioned formaldehyde. Used trailers were cleaned with an agent that masks the smell of formaldehyde, Fineran said.


That was way back in 2005. Way, way back in 2005. And people have been living in these trailers for two years since.

FEMA, meanwhile, hurriedly made the decision that they needed to evict residents from trailer parks while they stalled testings responsibilities. This article from late November details those plans and delivers this interesting tidbit:

The agency has been careful not to attribute park closures to concerns about formaldehyde, which has been found at dangerous levels in some trailers. In a "Frequently Asked Questions" flier released Wednesday, a question asked: "Is FEMA closing parks because of formaldehyde?" FEMA answered: "Trailers were intended as short-term housing solutions. Rental resources are increasingly available in Louisiana and are more appropriate for long-term housing."

Testing of local units was scheduled to begin this month but has been postponed. It should begin "very soon," Josephson said.

[Josephson is Bob Josephson, a FEMA spokesperson]

Now, the context of that article about the closure of FEMA parks is something I should say more about. That article wasn't primarily about formaldehyde levels. It was about another type of crisis:

FEMA's effectiveness in moving New Orleans residents out of parks is in dispute, and critics acknowledge the situation is complex. The working poor occupy most FEMA trailers, and they may also be grappling with depression, iffy credit and minor criminal records, all of which make apartment hunting more difficult. Caseworkers cited all those issues as complicating factors for departing trailer-park residents, Josephson said.

FEMA caseworkers also had reported that some occupants talked about wanting a rental apartment but then turned down five or six places, Josephson said.

That's that gosh-darn New Orleans affordable housing crisis again!

Originally, the trailer evictions due to occur at the end of this May applied only to the group trailer sites located throughout the state. But FEMA has now finally been pushed to admit that formaldehyde levels are so dangerous that relocations are beginning immediately from both group sites and trailers on private property.

So there are going to be thousands more people looking for affordable housing solutions sooner than anticipated for the month of May.

In November and December I warned that the rush to demolish large expanses of the public housing stock here in New Orleans was fundamentally foolish because, among many many many other reasons, the anticipated May FEMA evictions would add more pressure to what is already an extremely tense affordable housing shortage. Now it seems that emergency is both larger and sooner than the city anticipated. (And it should have been anticipated!)

If Ray "Free Market Recovery" Nagin believed that enough affordable housing would magically come into existence to provide a roof over the head of everyone evicted by May, maybe now he's starting to become concerned about that rosy forecast.

Maybe now he's working round-the-clock with his team to come up with temporary housing for the thousands and thousands of people in and around New Orleans that need to be immediately relocated. Maybe now he's formulating some sort of rent control policy so that prices don't skyrocket with the increased demand. Maybe now he's negotiating with state and federal agencies to secure funding and implementation assistance for what could be another massive displacement of lives.

I know why everybody is laughing (and/or crying)...

It's because we know what the Mayor's plan is already.

It's under the bridge at Claiborne and Canal.

FEMA has perpetrated some sort of willful or criminally negligent form of chemical genocide upon hundreds of thousands of people already victimized by the Federal Flood while the municipal government of New Orleans has repeatedly passed on the opportunity to prepare for yet another federally-funded humanitarian crisis that we cannot say was unforeseen.

Has the Mayor or anyone from City Council spoken about what New Orleans is going to do to help people get out of their toxic trailers? Have they spoken about how this will affect the affordable housing crisis? Have they spoken about helping New Orleans citizens exposed to formaldehyde obtain justice against FEMA?

This website, has been following the formaldehyde poisoning of Katrina victims for some time they're looking to compile stories from people affected by formaldehyde exposure. They also provide an important list of phone numbers that I will recreate here:

To report formaldehyde problems to FEMA: 1-866-562-2381.

FEMA hotline for emergency housing (only for those with formaldehyde issues): 1-800-621-3362

To request reimbursement from FEMA for medical expenses caused by formaldehyde exposure, fax a letter from doctor along with bills to 1-800-827-8112.

Kits to test trailers for formaldehyde can be purchased from Advanced Chemical Sensors, 561-338-3116. Cost: $34/kit.

Number for FEMA to buy back trailers: 1-866-562-2381 or e-mail

Toxic trailer lawsuits:

Buzbee Law Firm, Galveston, Texas , 409-762-5393,

Parker Waichman Alonso Mark LLP, New Orleans, 1-800-LAW-INFO, or

Rodney & Etter, New Orleans,


Fuck you, FEMA, fuck you.


NOLA radfem said...

Great job with all of this documentation. Thank you.

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