Trailers still uninspected

56,000 FEMA

Potential health problems led to order to test units occupied by hurricane survivors

October 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service

Three months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency halted the sale of travel trailers to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita over possible risks from formaldehyde and promised a health study, none of the 56,000 occupied units has been tested.

"It is inexcusable that 19 months after the first questions were raised, testing of occupied trailers has yet to begin," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

At a congressional hearing on the trailers in July, R. David Paulison, FEMA's administrator, said the agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "are scheduled to begin Phase 1 of the study in the Gulf Coast next week."

But the first teams did not reach New Orleans and Mississippi until the end of September, and then began only a baseline assessment of unoccupied trailers, laying the groundwork for the full-scale study, said a CDC spokeswoman in Atlanta, Bernadette Burden.

One result of the delay in the testing is that the agency has postponed a plan to charge rent on the trailers beginning in March. The rent was intended to encourage people displaced by the hurricanes to move into nonsubsidized housing.

Before sales were halted over the safety questions, 10,839 of the trailers were auctioned off by the General Services Administration and 819 more were sold directly to occupants by the emergency agency from July 2006 to July 2007, raising potential liability issues.

This week, the agency announced a program of subsidies, up to $4,000 a household, to encourage storm victims to return home to the Gulf states or seek permanent housing elsewhere.

But problems with the trailers have dealt further setbacks to self-sufficiency efforts: 4,110 people living in FEMA trailers have asked to be relocated because of health concerns, the agency said.

At the height of relief efforts after the 2005 storms, the emergency agency was providing 134,502 trailers of various sizes up to mobile homes. The number of trailers still deployed was 55,785, Walker said. The agency paid about $10,000 each for the trailers, she said.

Kathy Munson, a spokeswoman for one of the suppliers, Fleetwood Enterprises in Riverside, Calif., said dealers commonly aired out the trailers before selling them, which dissipated the formaldehyde. "FEMA ordered so many, they were at staging areas all sealed up and not aired out, and that causes fumes to get worse," Munson said.

Charles Green, a CDC spokesman, said that testing was expected to start at the end of this month or early November in at least 300 occupied trailers in Mississippi and 300 in Louisiana.

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