FEMA Trailers Part II: The Washington Post Investigates


On July 20, 2007, the Washington Post published a story by reporter Spencer S. Hsu titled “FEMA Knew of Toxic Gas in Trailers.” The article details how lawyers for FEMA reacted early in the summer of 2006, about nine months after the first Katrina trailers were deployed, when the first reports of serious health problems occurred and a lawsuit was brought by one resident. According to the Washington Post story, a FEMA expert in logistical matters stated that the Office of General Counsel for FEMA

“has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: “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.”

It is sickening that the lawyers working for FEMA were more concerned about protecting the agency from lawsuits because they had provided toxic trailers to hurricane victims than they were about the widespread reports that the trailers were causing serious damage to the health of  large numbers of the people living in them. 

According to the Post story,  FEMA stopped testing occupied trailers after March 2006, when it had discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and had relocated a south Mississippi couple who were expecting a baby. 

It should be noted that the safety level for formaldehyde in a workplace in which a worker is exposed for an 8-hour day, 5 days a week, is considerably different from the safety level for living quarters in which many occupants, including children and the elderly, were spending almost 24 hours a day every day. The worker would be exposed to the toxic fumes for 40 hours a week, while the inhabitants of a trailer could be exposed for almost 168 hours a week because the surrounding hurricane-ravaged area covered with debris was hardly conducive to spending much time outside one’s trailer. Thus many of the inhabitants of the trailers would have been breathing in over four times the amount of formaldehyde fumes constituting the safe level for a workplace. 

A man in Slidell, Louisiana, who had complained about the formaldehyde fumes in his trailer was found dead inside that trailer in late June 2006. According to the Washington Post, over two dozen officials from six government agencies participated in a conference call in which they recommended that the air quality in the trailers should undergo independent testing. Once again FEMA lawyers circled the wagons, with one saying that any investigation they had not authorized “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” as it attempted to face liability issues in court.

In July 2007 the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired by Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) held a hearing to investigate this outrageous situation. Waxman said that the FEMA documents:

“expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance .  .  .  senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”

Committee member Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA) stated:

“FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”

At the time the Post wrote its story, it reported that about 66,000 households displaced by Katrina were still living in questionable trailers, with FEMA having replaced only 58 trailers. Under the leadership of Becky Gillette, the Sierra Club in Mississippi had raised money to test 32 trailers along the Gulf Coast and in May 2006 reported that the tests showed unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers. As a result of these tests, some residents filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the trailer manufacturers.

On April 1, 2008, Becky Gillette testified about the toxic trailers to the U.S. House Science & Technology Committee, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee. Her testimony focused on the inability of the various agencies such as the CDC, ATSDR, and FEMA to work effectively together to carry out and share with each other and the general public research regarding toxic levels of formaldehyde in the Katrina trailers. That testimony included this moving statement:

I had no sense that there was any bureaucrat in Atlanta or Washington who even had a clue the amount of suffering and illness that was resulting from this long-term exposure to a toxic gas. I recall calling to give the bad news to Earl Shorty in Baker, La. about their trailer’s high formaldehyde levels. His wife Desiree Collins was coughing so bad in the background it was painful to hear her. A short time later she passed away.

One woman I tested, Theresa Coggins, a diabetic, had gone into a coma for eight days, running up a $100,000 hospital bill. Another woman whose trailer tested high, Christine Lawrence, told me her head felt like a balloon that was about to bust.

In December 2007 FEMA stopped selling its used trailers as the result of a class action lawsuit. In 2010, however, the ban on selling the trailers expired, and FEMA quickly moved to auction off most of its 120,00 Katrina trailers in huge lots. 

According to a March 13, 2010, article by Spencer S. Hsu  titled “FEMA’s Sale of Katrina Trailers Sparks Criticism” in the Washington Post:

FEMA officials defended the sale, noting that Congress has complained that the government has spent $220 million over three years to store vacant units. Wholesale buyers from the auction must sign contracts attesting that trailers will not be used, sold or advertised as housing, they said, and that trailers will carry a sticker saying, “Not to be used for housing.”

It is hardly surprising that the stickers on the trailers warning that they were not fit for housing quickly disappeared as they were resold at a substantial profit.