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More FEMA Follies

Reason Magazine | Radley Balko from the November 2009 issue

December 01, 2009

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina evacuees moved into emergency trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government admitted that the air inside many of the trailers contained dangerous levels of poisonous formaldehyde. A 79-page report, issued in July by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, documents a series of poor decisions at FEMA, including a troubling pattern of showing more concern for the agency’s image than for the people it may have been poisoning.

In the months after they moved into the FEMA homes, residents began reporting ailments such as blackouts, bloody noses, and respiratory problems. Subsequent testing showed some of the trailers had formaldehyde levels high enough to cause symptoms after just a few hours of exposure. About a third of the 134,000 trailers issued to evacuees had unsafe levels of formaldehyde.

The report notes that in 2007, well after concerns about toxic trailers came to light, FEMA put off testing for an additional two months while staffers crafted a communications strategy to spin the results to Congress, the media, and the trailer occupants themselves. The inspector general also found that the agency didn’t do enough to ensure the safety of the trailers in the first place, then responded lackadaisically to reports that occupants were getting sick.

“When [FEMA officials] did learn of the formaldehyde problems,” the report says, “nearly a year passed before any testing program was started and nearly two years passed before occupied trailers were tested and the occupants were informed of the extent of formaldehyde problems and potential health threats.” About 3,000 people still reside in FEMA-provided trailers.

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