The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of America is under disgrace. According to congressional lawmakers, the FEMA stamped on warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane evacuees. Those housed in government-provided trailers were exposed to levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers.
A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency's lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers. This was probably out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that agency attorneys had "advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." Another FEMA attorney on June 15 wrote, "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. ... you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."
FEMA is accused of not testing any occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace-safety threshold. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particleboard, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.
One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and that trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one cautioning that further investigation "could seriously undermine the agency's position" in litigation.
On the eve of Thursday's hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA changed track and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use. But revelation of the agency's earlier posture — in documents withheld by FEMA until Congress subpoenaed them — attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, called FEMA's indifference to hurricane evacuees "sickening." He said the documents "expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance," and added that "senior officials in Washington didn't want to know what they already knew, because they didn't want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done."
About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.
Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members had suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians had warned that their pets and children might be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.
"We have lost a great deal through our dealings with FEMA," says Paul Stewart, a former Army officer living in a trailer with his wife in Mississippi, "not the least of which is our faith in government."