Sandra Pitre, bed-bound from a stroke, and husband Bryan shared a one-bedroom FEMA trailer in Delcambre, Louisiana, with Pitre’s parents after Hurricane Rita destroyed their house.
Photo: Shawn Poynter
There was a telling contrast in headlines from the Gulf Coast this week. On Monday, The New York Times reported, “Casinos Boom In Katrina’s Wake As Cash Pours In.” Good news for those who happen to own casinos, or maybe even work in “˜em.
By Friday, however, the news was kind of grim: “FEMA Knew of Toxic Gas In Trailers,” headlined the Washington Post. For more than a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has known that the trailers it provided as temporary housing for Katrina refugees contained potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas. More than 120,000 families have lived in these trailers. The Post reports that hundreds have complained that something in the trailer was making them ill. One man was found dead in his trailer in 2006 after complaining about formaldehyde fumes.
FEMA discovered in early 2006 that some trailers contained formaldehyde gas 75 times the levels recommended for a safe workplace. When FEMA officials learned of the problem, they stopped testing and turtled-up — pulling their heads inside the shell of the bureaucracy and doing nothing.
The agency didn’t test because its lawyers said that testing might increase FEMA’s liability. When people complained about formaldehyde fumes, FEMA essentially told them to open the windows.
Nearly a year ago, those on the Gulf Coast who’d been flushed and blown out of their homes by Katrina and Rita were issuing warnings about the ill effects of FEMA housing — and that rebuilding casinos was taking a priority over rebuilding houses.
The casinos are up and going, according to the Times. Harrah’s of New Orleans reports it is on track for its best year ever, up 13.6 percent in the first five months of ’07 over the first five months of the year Katrina struck, 2005. Gambling parlors in Biloxi are at all time highs. There’s a lot of money pouring into the Gulf Coast, pushing up wages and stacking up the piles of cash people are dropping in slots or on the green felt of Harrah’s blackjack tables.
There are still families waiting for their share of good luck. Some 66,000 families still live in temporary housing, including some of the gassy FEMA trailers. A score of these residents have sued trailer makers. At a congressional hearing yesterday, people who lived in the FEMA trailers “described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms,” according to the Post.
FEMA director R. David Paulison told a Congressional panel that, in “hindsight,” his agency should have tested the trailers earlier.