FEMA trailers: Environmental time bombs?

by Jesse Muhammad
For New Pittsburgh Courier

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—A congressional hearing took place on Capitol Hill to explore the “Public Sales of Hurricane Katrina/Rita FEMA Trailers: Are they Safe or Environmental Time Bombs?” featuring the testimony of award-winning filmmaker Gabe Chasnoff and pediatrician Dr. Corey Hebert.

In the wake of Katrina and Rita in 2005, Chasnoff and his production crew stumbled upon the largest FEMA trailer park based in Baker, La., which turned out to be a formaldehyde nightmare for hurricane survivors. This gave birth to his documentary, “Renaissance Village,” which was named after that particular trailer park.


“After speaking with some of the park’s residents, I knew that their stories needed to be told, and I decided to shift the focus of our film from examining the post-Katrina health care situation in Louisiana to life inside a FEMA trailer park,” said Chasnoff, in his testimony late last month before the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

FEMA has sold 100,000 travel trailers used during hurricane recovery efforts despite the concerns of excessive formaldehyde levels. Herbert, a New Orleans resident, told the committee that he treated patients with symptoms caused by overexposure.

“These people had no prior allergic symptoms before living in travel trailers. It’s a problem that’s going to be happening over and over again. We have to stop this from being just a Gulf Coast problem to being a national problem,” Hebert said to the committee.

In defense of the agency, FEMA assistant administrator David Garrett told the committee that all trailer purchasers were asked to sign a waiver that they were aware of the dangers of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling gas. It is an important industrial chemical used to manufacture building materials and to produce many household products. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the short term effects of high levels of formaldehyde includes burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea and skin irritation. Long-term effects of formaldehyde have been linked to nose, lung and other types of upper respiratory cancer.

Renaissance Village was established after both hurricanes ripped through the Gulf Coast. The film was produced over the course of 18 months on the grounds from Jan. 2007 to June 2008 and “focuses on five residents desperately trying to reassemble their lives after losing nearly everything in the storms,” according to Chasnoff.

Baker, La., is situated 90 miles north of New Orleans, which saw the greatest impact by floodwaters in 2005. FEMA reportedly spent nearly $2.5 billion to buy trailers, campers and mobile homes for temporary housing and later discovered that formaldehyde was used in the construction of each unit.

“The government knew about the formaldehyde and its danger and chose silence over helping residents, for fear of getting a black eye,” said Chasnoff.

New Orleans native Amy Washington is a witness to this after her family had to stay in a FEMA trailer temporarily after losing her home due to flood damages.

“This is good that Chasnoff and that doctor (Dr. Herbert) are exposing this because I am sure there is more to uncover. I noticed my children feeling ill more than before and I really didn’t know the cause until I started hearing reports of formaldehyde by the news,” said Washington, who now resides in Houston.

Washington’s family lived in a trailer before being able to get to Houston. “It was mentally depressing to stay in a trailer and then on top of that to have these reports circulating about formaldehyde—it made some of us go crazy. Just hearing the words ‘FEMA trailers’ brings back nightmares for us,” she said.

“E-mails pertaining to the presence and dangers of formaldehyde in the trailers, revealed during the July 2007 government oversight committee hearing led by Congressman Henry Waxman of California, signified the deceptive posture taken by FEMA,” said Chasnoff.

He also pointed out that although FEMA established an emergency call number and disseminated 70,000 leaflets to occupants of the FEMA trailers in Renaissance Village, there was a lack of person-to-person contact made by the agency.

“I never witnessed any FEMA representative talking one-on-one, in detail, with any of the residents about the formaldehyde issue. I did see FEMA fliers taped to trailer doors that defined formaldehyde and the symptoms of exposure and advised residents on how to protect themselves. Residents received the majority of their information from local and national news television. This created even more panic and fear,” said Chasnoff.

In part of his documentary “Renaissance Village,” Chasnoff interviews resident Paul Thomas, who states, “I have never heard of a FEMA representative come back here on this property and and let us know that this is what is going to happen. It’s always hearsay and 95 percent of the time, it never happens.”

Chasnoff concluded: “This distrust of the government was not so much a result of 18 months of working with FEMA, but rather based on decades of racial and socioeconomic injustice experienced by those living in the park.”

(Special to the NNPA from the Final Call.)


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