Wanda Phillips’s story of developing chemical sensitivity after a FEMA trailer exposure following Hurricane Katrina


Wanda’s story appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.

The field in front of my house in Purvis, Mississippi, used to be the home of beautiful long-horned steers that grazed peacefully on the thick green grass. The cows would lift their heads and low softly when my grandchildren would climb on the fence and wave their hands excitedly at them. My husband and I used to sit on the breezeway of our porch and watch the cows grazing, and we thanked God for blessing us with the opportunity to live in such a beautiful home in the country. Now the grass on that field has been brutally scraped off. Truckloads of crushed rock have been brought in to make roadways and driveways; the remainder of the field is now bare dirt that blows wildly across the area when the wind rises. The beautiful long-horned steers have been replaced by white elephants–FEMA trailers–brought in by the federal government. The cows’ soft lowing has been replaced by the piercing, chirping warnings given off by the dying batteries of trailer alarms. FEMA, a federal agency I had never heard of before Hurricane Katrina, has become a new way of life for my family.

All pretense of privacy is gone; it’s been replaced by guards with guns, ever watchful for movement from any direction. The guards nod with an impersonal nod and sometimes ask who won what game when we go to retrieve the daily newspaper. When we look out the window or walk out onto the porch or into the yard, the eyes of bored security guards are there watching us. Also gone with our privacy is the lost health that we enjoyed without realizing what we had until it was gone.

I will never forget the tremendous excitement I felt when I witnessed Katrina’s outrageous display of force. Our huge trees fell slowly as the wind caught their branches like umbrellas and lifted them, pulling their roots from the ground in slow motion and leaving them exposed to the rain that fell in sheets. It sounded like trains and eighteen wheelers were tearing down the highway in front of our house and through the woods behind the house.

But the regret at the loss of our trees and the damage to our house is nothing compared to the hurt, anger, and pain that I have and am experiencing from the stonewalling of the federal government as it turns a blind eye to the problems that my family is experiencing. Unfortunately, the federal government decided that the best place to set up a huge operation to help Hurricane Katrina victims was right across the road from our house. In the course of setting up their operation, they blocked the road with traffic. The FEMA trailers arrived at the cow pasture pulled by what looked to us like grannies and young boys not old enough for the job. It appeared that every unemployed person had jumped on the bandwagon to try to make a fast big buck. We even heard of people quitting their jobs to pull FEMA trailers. We watched in amazement at the strange assortment of people pulling the trailers into the new staging facility. Most of the drivers appeared to be inexperienced and new to this type of work.

In the first stages of setting up camp, FEMA installed a garbage dumpster and a long row of porta potties right across the street from my home. For over eighteen months, we could see these porta potties and dumpster from our kitchen and we could smell them from our dining room table. For over eighteen months, our house was lit up inside at night like a Christmas tree. As we lay in bed, we could feel the rumbling of the generators that ran all night long to power the floodlights that lit up the staging facility across the road. During the day, multiple smaller generators ran. Even now dust fills my house from the raw exposed earth across the road from my house. We can hear cell phones ringing and the garbled voices of people laughing and talking as they go about FEMA business. We listen to people shouting to make themselves heard above the generators and the slamming of the porta-potty doors. A business of this magnitude leaves a big footprint.

All my life I have worked hard. I have struggled and gone to school with holes in my shoes and my toes exposed, so ashamed that I finally quit school after the ninth grade. I have cooked on a wood stove and milked a cow to provide my children with milk. I grew up poor enough that at times we did not have running water and toted water from a spring that we dug under the hill to get water to drink and to use to wash our clothes in the bathtub. Many times we bathed in the evenings in the Escatawpa River or took a cold sponge bath in front of a small heater. I have worked hard and long to arrive to where I am now. I have a new life where I never go to bed hungry and don’t have to survive on deer meat and field peas. I don’t have to beg the power man not to turn off my power. Now in the peak of my life when my children are grown and have moved out and I am still young enough and financially able to ride my motorcycle on long motorcycle trips, skydive, or go hiking in the mountains, it’s hard to do those things I love because I am sick.

My health problems started with a dripping nose and coughing that I first attributed to allergies. I had been diagnosed with asthma and allergies before FEMA moved in across the road and started sharing my life, but allergy shots had helped me. It had been years since I had any problems with allergies, and even though my doctor said I had asthma I couldn’t tell it. After FEMA moved in, I developed a cough that still bothers me. I was rechecked for allergies, and my allergies came back insignificant, so that was not the problem. My husband developed chronic sinus drainage that became so serious that he had to have surgery. Before FEMA moved in across the road, he had sleep apnea. After they moved in, he developed a new and horrifying symptom in his sleep that he had never had before. His snoring and occasional noises at night changed to a terrifying strangling that he would describe as drowning in his sleep. Then he started having this strangulation feeling when he was just sitting in his recliner. His doctor performed surgery to trim back his elongated pallet and straighten his deviated septum; he also removed his uvula. None of my husband’s problems were alleviated by this procedure; the only thing that happened is that now he chokes and vomits easily.

I have always thought that my husband’s problem was related to the FEMA operation across the road. I can still remember the expression of shock on his face when I told him we needed to move away from this. Shock and disbelief. All he said was, “and go where?”

It was not easy to persuade my husband that we needed to move, but by this point I had decided that my health was more important than anything else and that I would move without him if necessary. I did a hardship withdrawal from my 401(k) and started developing a raw piece of property that I owned in my hometown of Richton, Mississippi, about forty-five minutes from our home in Purvis. The  development process on my land in Richton was slow going, however, because all the contractors and equipment operators in the area were busy doing hurricane repairs. About the same time that I was at last able to get the utilities installed at my property in Richton and to get my hurricane repairs done at my home in Purvis, FEMA started auctioning off the used trailers that were being returned to the staging facility across from us by hurricane survivors who were blessed enough to escape them. I told my husband that we might as well buy one so that I could live in it on my land in Richton until the FEMA operation across from us shut down.

We looked at hundreds of trailers, but only a few passed our inspection sufficiently that we were willing to bid on them. Lots of the trailers were warped and twisted. The floors buckled up in the center, the walls were leaning, the windows were busted out, and mold was growing in and on them. Some had bullet holes in them, and some of the trailers had undergone fire damage. A guard told me that some people in New Orleans had used the trailers to make crystal meth and they had exploded and burned. My husband and I thought that one reason there were so many problems with the trailers was that FEMA was using inexperienced people to pull them, set them up, and do maintenance on them. Who ever heard of putting an RV on blocks? I can just imagine what putting the trailers on blocks did to the integrity of the structures.

The condition of the trailers was terrible. The pet odors in some were so awful you would gag when you went in the door. Finally, I was able to win the bid on a small FEMA spec trailer; the structure looked intact and it had a strong “new” smell to it.

What I didn’t know at that time was that the incredible new smell in my new FEMA trailer was in fact caused by formaldehyde. In time, I would learn more about formaldehyde than I would ever want to know.

I have recently had a chemical testing company test the formaldehyde levels in my FEMA trailer, and the results were high.  I didn’t know that, however, when I moved into my new trailer and my husband soon grudgingly followed me. Within the next months, we spent most of our time in the FEMA trailer. My pregnant daughter and her two daughters were with us as well. We spent the evenings cleaning up hurricane damage on the property and would fall exhausted into bed at night. We did not cook in the trailer or do much of anything but sleep in it because it was so small. We went by our home in Purvis from time to time in the evening so that people wouldn’t realize we were no longer living there.

Finally, my husband decided to go back home to Purvis to live because he was worried that with all the increased traffic in front of our house it might be robbed. In addition, he had trouble sleeping in the trailer, which was also a problem for me, even though I had bought an expensive mattress to use in it. Later we learned that insomnia can be a symptom of formaldehyde exposure. At any rate, the longer I stayed in the trailer, the sicker I became. The stress of the cramped quarters and the girls climbing up and down the bunk beds like monkeys made me decide that if I was going to be sick wherever I was, I might as well be sick in the comfort of our big brick house, so we all went back to Purvis. By this time, however, it had ceased to feel like my home; it had become just the house where I dwelled.

Even before the Hattiesburg American ran the first article about formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers, we had noticed that we could smell the trailers across the road when we sat on our front porch. I had also begun to lose my voice when I sat outside in the evenings. It is now common for me to lose my voice at the slightest provocation. My doctor had me tested for everything that he could think of that would make you lose your voice or be hoarse, and everything has come back fine. He has told me that the only thing he can do is treat my symptoms. I quit going outside and stayed in the house all the time.

My whole life changed because of the FEMA trailers because I am now sensitive to lots of different chemicals. I have had to quit using candles and plug-in air fresheners. Many of the cleaners that I formerly used now irritate my sinuses and will start a storm of coughing and sinus drainage. The sinus drainage makes the skin on the top of my soft pallet feel like it has been scraped with a wire brush. I have had to give up coloring my hair because the dye started giving me bad headaches and made me feel dizzy and nauseated. I also had to quit wearing makeup because when I put on eye makeup, my eyes would water and soon all the makeup would be gone. My husband bought me a new four-door Jeep for Valentines Day, but I don’t drive it because the new smell makes me cough and my nose run. There have been times that I have coughed until I have had to wrap my arms around my ribs because it felt like my ribs were going to break. Bronchitis and horrifying green drainage from my nose has become an everyday occurrence.

Tests of the formaldehyde level in the outside ambient air in front of our house have shown levels twice the amount considered safe for year-round living conditions. Scientists have said that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. Cancer is something that I have dealt with before. After a couple of surgeries I have been cancer free for over twelve years, but the fear of it is still with me, intensified by my knowledge that there are carcinogenic levels of formaldehyde in my front yard.

I worry especially about my youngest granddaughter because my daughter had such difficulty carrying her. By the time she was three-months-old, my granddaughter had had a couple of spells where she quit breathing and her legs from the knees down turned blue. In my research, I have found that there are documented cases of birth defects caused by exposure to formaldehyde in the first trimester of pregnancy. My daughter lived with me for three or four days every week during her pregnancy and still continues to stay with me. She and my granddaughters also stayed with me in our FEMA trailer. My daughter had recurrent labor for weeks before her daughter was born. She took medications for the problem and was admitted to the hospital on more than one occasion to stop her from giving birth too early. Even then she delivered her baby early.

My son-in-law coughs and spits and blows his nose nonstop when he is at my house. I can see my family having the same problems that I have experienced with the headaches and earaches and other symptoms, but at a lower rate. Everybody’s immune system is different, but apparently no one is immune to the effects of continuous toxins. I had hoped that one day FEMA would leave and we could get well, but I have been told that they are here to stay. I have also learned that once a large chemical exposure makes you develop a sensitivity to all sorts of other chemicals, you have a disability that will probably affect you for the rest of your life. I pray that my family and I will not be permanently damaged by our formaldehyde exposure.

I am making arrangements to move again, away from my home and the slumbering white elephants across the street. Of course, it won’t be easy to sell our present house, given the monstrous trailer site across the road. I get so tired of everyone telling us that our home has lost its value and that we will never be able to sell it. That’s just one more way that FEMA has had a huge impact on my life.

If the trailer site isn’t shut down, then my last resort is to move to my property in Richton, Mississippi, and build a home there. I have now purchased a twenty-four-year-old trailer that I can put on my land in Richton while I’m waiting to build a house. The only reason I haven’t started to build a new house yet is that now the federal government wants to expand the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and has announced that a new SPR facility will be located in Richton, Mississippi, as part of the expansion project. The government wants to clean out the salt domes in Richton and store millions of gallons of petroleum two and a half miles across the swamp from my property. Reports I have read say that about six square miles of the salt area appears suitable for cavern development. Does this mean that there will be huge amounts of petroleum below my land? I no longer trust our government to look out for my health and welfare, so I’m at a loss to know whether to build a house there or not.