Inside FEMA’s Toxic Trailers

In post-Katrina New Orleans, you learn to live with adversity, and work around it as best you can. That's the way Ceolia Brown, 43, has managed. Brown, who lives in the Carrollton section of Orleans Parish, is one of thousands of area residents blown from her home by the storms, and relocated to a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer.

Brown got hers in February of 2006, some six months after the hurricane made landfall, and began having problems almost immediately. "When it was hot out it would be worse," Brown says. "I'd come home from work and walk in and it would irritate my eyes; they'd be running. I'd raise up all the windows and go outside for 20 minutes. When I called FEMA to come out about it, they'd say, 'That's just the fumes from the trailer.'" Her husband Tom, 50, is a city worker and has had health problems since they started living in the one-bedroom facility, which is parked on their front lawn on Palm Street. "My husband has had a cough and gets nosebleeds." Brown's 6-year-old granddaughter, Ndeya, has asthma; Ceolia decided to keep her out of the trailer as much as she could. She called FEMA several times about getting out of the trailers but says no one ever called back. The only time they did hear from the agency was when the floor in the bathroom fell in on Ceolia. The Browns were given another brand new replacement trailer--one every bit as full of fumes as their first one.

This week, the federal government formally acknowledged why. FEMA confirmed that the trailers--hailed as a lifeline for so many in the region displaced by the storm--carried toxic levels of formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen. The Centers for Disease Control conducted a random sampling of 519 occupied travel trailers between Dec. 21, 2007, and Jan. 23, 2008--and found an average level of 77 parts per billion formaldehyde to air. (The average level in a new home, by comparison, would be between 15 and 17 ppb). Some trailers showed levels as high as 590 ppb. The levels would likely be even higher in summer months. FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison announced plans Thursday to relocate all trailer residents by summer, focusing on the elderly and the infirm first. At one point, there were 143,752 trailer occupants; today, there are still 38,297, spread across the four states affected by Katrina as well as Hurricane Rita: Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama.

FEMA's announcement spawned fresh outrage over the government's response to a crisis that has been bungled from the start. Critics point out that trouble with the trailers was apparent early on. As FEMA rushed to create sufficient stock to house the dispossessed, manufacturers were pressured to deliver trailers before they'd been adequately ventilated. By early 2006, word was spreading that people living in the trailers were getting sick. The Sierra Club handed out test kits; which residents used to collect air samples in their temporary homes. The results indicated elevated levels of formaldehyde, but it was hard to get government action, a Sierra Club spokesman says, because there are no federal standards for acceptable levels in travel trailers, which are meant to be used on a temporary basis--not as permanent homes. Worried, the environmental group began circulating a health fact sheet to trailer residents all along the Gulf Coast. Reports of rashes, bloody noses and symptoms resembling asthma began pouring in.

By the summer of 2007, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings to probe what it called the "dangerous levels of formaldehyde" in FEMA trailers--and how the agency had responded. Committee Chairman Henry Waxman released copies of internal FEMA memos documenting the agency's awareness of the danger as early as March 2006, and he blasted FEMA leadership's failure "to understand and address the public health implications"--despite the urging by FEMA staff in the field. (There were other problems, as well: the agency, which overspent for the trailers, tried to sell the surplus, only to be forced to buy them back after news of the formaldehyde spread. Buyers were not compensated for monetary losses, as FEMA sold high and bought back low.)

FEMA leaders have said that they moved to address the problem by setting up a hotline and relocating trailer residents who voiced concern. But Administrator Paulison admitted during the hearing that FEMA "could have moved faster" and has since pledged to solve the problem. In a press conference on Thursday, Paulison defended the agency's actions: "We do care about the people and we've been moving them as fast as we can. We did not have a lot of information two years ago or 18 months ago when we started. That's why we asked CDC, who are the experts in these medical needs, to come in, test these trailers, tell us exactly what we had and what we need to do and they've done that."

But that response was too little, too late in the minds of many area politicians. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, was incensed and issued this statement on Thursday: "After over a year of sitting on their hands, the Bush administration has finally provided clear and accurate information to trailer occupants about the potential risks of formaldehyde to their health. It is simply unacceptable that the administration allowed trailer occupants to be exposed to these health risks at all, let alone for years."

Down here in Carrollton, folks struggled to figure out how to handle this latest twist in the long, weary journey home. The news confirmed their worst fears. But many will not find it easy to uproot yet again, and relocate to the unknown.

Ceolia Brown spent Friday afternoon in her toxic abode, catching up with a girlfriend. It was raining outside, so she kept the windows shut tight, despite the dangers, the dampness still somehow managing to find its way in. The trailer is neat and well-organized, but four people are hard-pressed to array themselves inside without touching. The family's belongings are crammed beneath benches that convert into beds. The trailer is parked just yards from the front door of their storm-damaged home. From here, they can keep watch, and guard against those who might break in to their old residence. Ceolia has heard the latest news; FEMA is moving people out of the trailers and into hotels and apartments. But the agency has not contacted her directly. She is wary of leaving; but the health risks frighten her. For now, she's staying put. "I guess we have no choice," she says, looking around the trailer sadly.

Elsewhere in the city, the boosters are trying not to let word of the formaldehyde problem crush the spirit of renewal. The NBA is in town for its All-Star game this weekend, and has co-sponsored the rehab of several houses on Lizardi Street. Kristin Gisleson Palmer, director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, a venerable community-service group, warns against dwelling on the toxic trailers issue. Residents here "are old," she says, as basketball players wield paintbrushes behind her. "They don't need to be scared."

Sidney Davis, a 67-year-old former Merchant Marine, is doing his best not to be. He's spent his whole life here in the Lower Ninth Ward, and he is not anxious to move away from family and friends. He and his cousin rode out the storm together, and were taken by boat to the Superdome when the levies broke. They were shipped out to Texas, but started making their way back as soon as they could; both were back in the ward in FEMA trailers by December 2005. He began hearing tales of trouble early on. "FEMA knew, too, but they just ignored it," he says. Asked about relocating, Davis just shakes his head. "Where could you go to rent? The prices around here are sky high. So we are stuck." But he has high-blood pressure and diabetes, and FEMA's Paulison has said he wants to move the elderly and most vulnerable out of the trailers and into hotels and apartments within the next two weeks.

Davis says he's a plumber's visit away from being able to move back into his house. In the meantime, he does what he can to avoid exposure to the formaldehyde. "If I didn't keep the windows open, my eyes would be running. I knew about formaldehyde, I learned about it in barber school," he says. "I didn't complain about it; at least I have somewhere to stay. But these weren't meant to be lived in--they aren't healthy, not healthy for me at all." For now, he's waiting for FEMA's call.