Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Incompetence Strikes at FEMA, Again


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!

Sharon MacDonell: After graduating from the University of Michigan, Sharon started her career in Tokyo, working for Globe Net Productions and producing segments for a variety of clients, including the PBS/NHK co-production Asia Now. Stateside she’s produced for such shows as ABC’s World News Tonight, Inside Edition, and Forensic Files (the “Deadly Knowledge” episode). Currently, Sharon’s a full-time mom and part-time journalist and essayist. She’s been published by Christian Science Monitor, Signature Magazine, MetroParent, Strut, Suburban Lifestyles & Gihon River Review

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This is horrifying.
What a horrendous thing. What is it with our government? Every 2-4 years, we have elections to throw the bums out and either a) it doesn't work or b) we get new bums. It's massively frustrating and I'm so sorry for the Huckabee family. Sharon -- thanks for writing a splendid essay.
I got sick to my stomach reading this! I actually disagree with you though (your last paragraph)- I think FEMA can be faulted for the formaldehyde levels. They were made aware of the problem and they chose to do absolutely *nothing* about it; besides continue the exposure. You're right, these folks are so vulnerable... why are those affected by Katrina being treated like this?
I agree that FEMA shouldn't be in the business of housing people for 2 years after a storm. Trailers are intended to be short term solutions- used in every day life as recreational campers for weekend getaways, but generally not for daily use. FEMA was supposed to use these things only for a short time, because people were supposed to be able to move on, as happens everywhere else. Why is it that the media isn't talking about the people in Greensburg, KS? Last time I checked, that town was completely obliterated and there wasn't that week-long warning that a storm was brewing- it literally happened within minutes. FEMA responded to this as well, perhaps giving trailers, perhaps not. But, the fact of the matter is, the media doesn't talk about Greensburg because the folks there are moving on and able to get back on their feet. Their homes, families, cars, jobs, and infrastructure (water, town offices, schools, etc.) are completely gone, but we don't hear about them in the news. Shocking, isn't it? I just wonder what the Huckabees' long term plan is. It can't be to live 100% rent free on the government's dime forever, whether it be a mobile home, or perhaps an apartment or maybe even a house they help her build. Can it? I guess it can. People are not expected to recover. That's obviously the government's fault.
Hi Marie, Where are people supposed to go? No, FEMA's job is to help them recover, not to put em up for a night in a motel and send them on their way. Of the billions of dollars to go to the Katrina victims, only a tiny fraction has gone into the hands of people trying to rebuild. If you do a little research, you'll also find that real estate and rental prices in the area have increased dramatically. Imagine it or not, there are people living paycheck to paycheck with no family to help and no way to bail out. Oh, and Greensburg...was there enough damage to kill 1800 people like in Katrina? I see that the population of Greensburg in 2004 was 1,452. Can you really compare the scale of these two disasters? This was the biggest natural disaster to strike America, ever. And if you don't believe me, how about another victim who is whining about FEMA and the insurance industry who won't pay a dime on these destroyed homes--Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS). He said he would rebuild after Katrina, but hasn't been able to, because his insurance company won't pay because he didn't have flood insurance. Isn't that his fault? Now the anti-lawyer Lott has hired a lawyer to sue State Farm. Why doesn't he pull himself up by his own bootstraps? He's rich! Wasn't it his fault that he didn't buy flood insurance? So you're telling me you support hiding from people that they're living in toxic homes? You support them contacting lawyers but not the people living there? The government lied to these people. Sorry, cronyism and incompetent government agencies just aren't defensible to me, no matter what other stories you can come up with to change the subject. But go ahead, worry about the poor government, and those lovely civil servants who don't care whether we live or die as long as they get their pensions. Who needs to defend families and children? Let them fend for themselves.
OK, Sharon. Tell me where FEMA should put them. There are something like 40,000-100,000 families in trailers (the number seems to vary depending on the show you're watching). Where would YOU like FEMA to put them? And for how long? What has happened to the other million or more people that moved or evacuated from LA? Why aren't they in trailers? What have they done with their lives? FEMA's recovery program is supposed to be short term. Where is HUD in all of this? Why isn't anyone criticizing HUD for failing to house a large portion of their OWN pre-Katrina population??? More than a quarter of the people who lived in NO before Katrina were below the poverty level. Do we expect them to be ABOVE it afterwards?®=null%3Anull&_keyword=&_industry= FEMA shouldn't use trailers for long term housing. No doubt. Paulison should be publicly tarred and feathered for pretending not to know this was happening, or that it happened "before his watch." The problem is, where should FEMA put them? Here are the allowances of their program to help individuals: Check out the maximum allowance for parts of this program. If you rail against someone, it should be Congress for passing laws that make FEMA only able to pay $5000 to someone to repair their home. We need to also rail against the insurance industry for making it absolutely unaffordable for low income Americans to get insurance. We should also be livid and lobby Congress to make the insurance companies pay on claims. We should also boycott government welfare programs that force people to remain helpless in order to receive benefits. We DO need reform, but none of the politicos on either side is making ANY headway on making a system that works. And FEMA gets all the blame. Other interesting things from the link, with respect to FEMA's usual role in things: (ii) Period of assistance The President may not provide direct assistance under clause (i) with respect to a major disaster after the end of the 18-month period beginning on the date of the declaration of the major disaster by the President, except that the President may extend that period if the President determines that due to extraordinary circumstances an extension would be in the public interest. (iii) Collection of rental charges After the end of the 18-month period referred to in clause (ii), the President may charge fair And, yes, I do consider Greensburg the same as New Orleans. Smaller, but the same. Heck, the poor Kansans didn't even get the several days warning that the folks in LA did. I am sure Greensburg looks a heck of a lot like (or worse) than the 9th ward. As a reminder: This tornado was obviously smaller, but the result is the same. An entire community and network was obliterated. Where did folks in Greensburg go? Where did they get jobs? Food? Shelter? There were at least 100 disasters declared by the President since Katrina. But no one in the nation gives a crap when a middle class person's home is washed down the river in New York or West Virginia. People in Greensburg lost everything and they aren't even a blip on the radar of most Americans because people who lost everything 2 friggin years ago still can't move on even a little. They can't recover but they're really good at getting on Oprah, testifying before Congress, and getting lawyers and advocacy groups to sue for them. Perhaps if they spent more time looking for housing and formulating a plan, they could recover. Until then, they're going to be on government welfare, and the administration seems to have chosen trailers as its premium form of welfare.
I criticized a government agency for lying to people who were the victims of a terrible natural disaster in our country. FEMA didn't tell them they were in harm's way in these toxic trailers. I am right. The agency was wrong. I'm not interested in Greensburg as part of the discussion because it's off point. Nor am I in interested in criticizing the people in trailers, because I do not know exactly why they haven't moved on, nor do you. I don't know where to put them or how to help them, but FEMA should. Maybe that's just the point of all this cronyism--if you give people important jobs that they can't do because of their political views, they probably won't do a very good job. The people who were in these trailers were in medical jeopardy long before their 18 month limit was over, so whether they lived there for 2 years, or more, or less is irrelevant to my argument. FEMA shouldn't have lied and then lawyered up, and more people should know that they did. Sharon
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