Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FEMA Redevelopment

Looks a lot like the redevelopment of our own city.

There is none.

Our Senator, Mary Landrieu blasted FEMA officials at a hearing yesterday in Washington. Also there to take heat were officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC director of environmental health, Harvey Frumkin apologized for his agency's role in the federal government's criminally slow response to formaldehyde contamination in FEMA trailers distributed throughout the area.

"We did not engage the formaldehyde issue as aggressively and effectively as we should have."

"...didn't adequately address the long-term dangers."

He's essentially saying that if his agency had done a better job telling FEMA that formaldehyde posed a long term health risk, FEMA would have acted earlier to scrap the trailers and relocate residents to safer accommodations. Instead, the CDC downplayed the dangers and FEMA advised trailer residents to ventilate their units.

I question this attempt to spread out the culpability.

FEMA knew of formaldehyde complaints in 2005. They knew of systemic formaldehyde contamination early in 2006. They did not acknowledge the immediate health risks until February of 2008.

Is that because the CDC memos weren't urgent enough? That's crap.

Formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen. FEMA knew enough to list it as a occupational hazard for its own employees charged with spending some of their work day in and around the trailers.

It is called a contingency strategy.

You see, a federal agency charged with disaster preparedness comes up with plans in case disaster strikes. They're supposed to deal with worst-case scenarios all day long.

For instance:

Scenario A: The public discovers that the agency has been slow and unresponsive in ordering testing for formaldehyde hazards in agency trailers distributed to victims of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters all over the country.

We already know that FEMA knew of the potential for this scenario in late 2005. They were made aware of negative formaldehyde reactions by their people on the field. In fact, FEMA at that time unveiled a plan to mitigate individual formaldehyde-related issues while simultaneously working to prevent suspicion of widespread formaldehyde contamination.

Okay, so if you're at FEMA at this point, as you're hearing that there are complaints related to formaldehyde, you might want to come up with a contingency plan. I'm not even talking about doing the right thing.

The right thing would have been to immediately order top to bottom testing of the trailer fleet for formaldehyde contamination while simultaneously confirming potential funding streams for emergency shelters in the event the trailers were found to be too dangerous for habitation. The right thing would have been to immediately halt the distribution of trailers at risk of contamination and to come up with an alternative plan to house those victimized by future natural disasters.

But at this point, unfortunately, nobody expects the right thing from FEMA.

They're villains.

What I'm talking about is the villain's contingency plan to save its own skin. Why didn't they, starting in 2005 when they realized that there may be formaldehyde contamination problems, formulate a plan to deal with the public relations fallout? They executed some of the same old cartoon villain rubric. They denied that there were serious health risks, they refused to order comprehensive testing even after elected officials and environmental agencies began asking pointed questions, and they delayed the testing process several times after it was ordered.

One would think all of this stonewalling would have allowed FEMA to come up with a plan to deal with the inevitable findings. With all the effort FEMA expended to deny and delay the findings of the formaldehyde tests, one would think they'd used the extra time they made for themselves to come up with a disaster housing strategy to ensure that it would never happen again. They could have used all that time they bought using the health of Katrina victims as currency to have a new rubric for the future in place to help deflect criticisms of what they had done in the past.

They didn't though. They didn't even do that.

FEMA is six months late on a Congressionally-mandated deadline to develop a post-disaster housing strategy for future storms.

Here is Sen. Mary Landrieu:

"The failure to complete the disaster housing strategy has left thousands of hard-working, tax-paying Americans at risk."

"This isn't six months after the storm. This is two-and-a-half years after the storm, with a new hurricane season approaching in June."

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FEMA was still distributing trailers at new disaster sites. The Feb. 5 tornadoes that devastated towns all over the South required a response from FEMA that included housing assistance. FEMA's plan was to send trailers. On February 14th, FEMA announced a delay for formaldehyde testing of those trailers. That same day, FEMA and the CDC announced that residents of trailers on the Gulf Coast would be relocated due to dangerous formaldehyde contamination.

"Given that they sent trailers to Arkansas one day and brought them back the next, I don't think that is something to be proud of," said Landrieu, who called FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's disaster housing policy "a massive failure of initiative and preparedness."

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They couldn't even prepare their PR team to mitigate criticism by having a plan in place to address future distribution of trailers that could also be contaminated with formaldehyde. They had to call in the PR team from the CDC for some emergency responses to a furious public.

UPDATE: Much more detail on FEMA's foot-dragging by Your Right Hand Thief.

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