In late July I watched a C-SPAN re-broadcast of a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. I was initially struck by the testimony of Lindsay Huckabee of Kiln, Mississippi. She admitted she sometimes wondered if she was overreacting to her five kids' seemingly endless illnesses. That was something I could relate to. In the past I've been on the receiving end of the doctorly look that says "Oh no, another over-protective mother."
But I soon understood it wasn't Huckabee's pediatrician who had filled her with doubt. The doctor was just as worried about the cause of her kids' recurrent gushing nosebleeds and respiratory problems.
No, the "skeptic" in this case was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)--the folks who brought us the bungled Hurricane Katrina response.
Well, they're at it again.
The Huckabees' apartment complex was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. With nowhere else to go, they moved into a FEMA-provided trailer. Soon the couple's children became very sick. Mrs. Huckabee's daughter Lelah was hit hardest, hospitalized twice with pneumonia. A specialist tried a variety of treatments, but nothing stopped her symptoms. Finally the doctor suggested their trailer could be the problem. "He had many repeat patients with the same symptoms all living in FEMA trailers," Huckabee said.
The likely culprit was formaldehyde. Mobile homes and trailers are built using many products that contain formaldehyde, like glues and particle board. The lower quality the products, the higher the emissions. The Huckabee's symptoms, such as sore throats, bloody noses and chest congestion are typical of short-term, unsafe formaldehyde exposure.
Mrs. Huckabee asked FEMA for help, but agency representatives pooh-poohed her story, one even accused her of "exaggerating." Briefly, in the midst of her family's bewildering illnesses, she wondered if she was imagining it all. Eventually the Sierra Club volunteered to test the trailer and found formaldehyde levels three times the accepted safe level for a workplace, let alone a residence.
In spite of hundreds of similar complaints from trailer residents, FEMA tested just one occupied trailer. A pregnant mother living with her four-month-old son called FEMA repeatedly about her trailer's terrible smell. In April of 2006 FEMA tested the air inside and found formaldehyde levels 75 times higher than the maximum workplace exposure level. She moved out.
So how did FEMA use those terrifying results? Did they warn the thousands of Katrina victims that some of their trailers were likely emitting toxic gasses? No. Did they mobilize their field agents to test every trailer and root out the bad ones? No. Didn't they do anything? Yes, they did.
They lawyered up.
FEMA attorneys advised the agency to stop testing trailers. An attorney explained in a June 15, 2006 memo: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them." In other words, if people know they're being poisoned, we'll actually have to do something about it.
If FEMA had investigated, they may have known what CBS News learned after the hearing. A former floor supervisor at an Indiana plant that built thousands of the trailers told CBS that FEMA's massive order forced them to use cheaper, more dangerous products. But FEMA did not investigate. Instead, the agency created to help people like the Katrina victims, hid behind lawyers and let the residents get sicker.
At the congressional hearing, FEMA Administrator David Paulison sang his agency's praises. Out of more than 66,800 trailers still in use, he said, "Only 58 units have been replaced because of formaldehyde concerns." But trailer residents at the hearing reported they had to badger the unwilling agency into replacing trailers for months, and when the new trailers arrived they also had high levels of formaldehyde. The fact that FEMA replaced only 58 trailers likely says more about their unwillingness to act than the number of complaints.
Paulison said FEMA tested some uninhabited trailers in September of 2006. After being "aired out" with windows open and air conditioners blazing for three weeks, the trailer's formaldehyde readings showed "safe levels," Paulison said.
But according to the testimony of Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist, FEMA manipulated the results. The "safe level" FEMA claimed was actually 400 times higher than the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register standard. DeVany said FEMA's testing methods were, at best, "unethical." At worst, I guess, they were lying through their teeth.
After months of FEMA promises, the Huckabees received a new trailer this past April. Testing on the second trailer showed elevated formaldehyde levels, but they were better than the first one. However, the nightmare isn't over. During a recent cleaning, a dentist found a mass in Mr. Huckabee's soft palette. The tumor is benign, but doctors warned mouth tumors can be a long-term effect of formaldehyde exposure, as can nasal and lung cancer. The family hopes to save enough money to move out on their own soon, but with five kids and astronomical medical bills, Mrs. Huckabee testified, "We are actually moving backward."
Now obviously FEMA can't be faulted for the trailers' formaldehyde levels. But there is no excuse for FEMA leaders, including Mr. Paulison, to allow the toxic trailers to continue poisoning Katrina victims long after they knew the dangers. Apparently these bureaucrats believe protecting themselves is more important than protecting America's most vulnerable citizens.
Heckuva job, Paulie!