FEMA's Toxic Environment
A push for better responsiveness hasn't trickled down.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

FEDERAL Emergency Management Agency director R. David Paulison says he is "very serious about making FEMA responsive to America's needs." But as was painfully demonstrated at a hearing last Thursday into the agency's efforts to ignore complaints about toxic gas in trailers, that seriousness is still lacking.

To be sure, the alarm about the potentially cancer-causing gas was first sounded in March 2006 by FEMA field workers, who urged quick action in response to complaints about high levels of formaldehyde in trailers occupied by survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet, stunning e-mails provided by FEMA to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed that the agency's lawyers recommended doing nothing. As one FEMA official wrote in a June 2006 e-mail, the Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue."

It gets worse. After a Louisiana man was found dead in his trailer in June 2006 -- a man who had told neighbors that he was afraid to use his air conditioner because it made the formaldehyde problem worse -- a 28-person, six-agency conference call took place. FEMA's lawyers again opposed air-quality testing. Witnesses at last week's hearing talked about symptoms that bothered them for months: nosebleeds; itchy throats and eyes; complications with pregnancy; children with multiple cases of pneumonia. Their pleas for help from FEMA, they said, were met with cold indifference.

That indifference ended last Wednesday, the day before the hearing, when FEMA announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would conduct random air-quality tests in occupied trailers to determine the extent of the problem. The first tests were due to start this week. Notices are being sent to all trailer occupants informing them of the problem, possible symptoms and whom to contact for help. FEMA is also changing its specifications for trailers to match the stricter mobile-home rules provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mr. Paulison told us he "was not happy with what I heard at the hearing" and vowed to "deal with this head-on." He said, "I want this to be an organization that puts the victim first," and that he has been "working very hard to change the culture of the agency." Knocking a few heads in FEMA's general counsel's office would be a good first step for Mr. Paulison to take in sending a strong signal to the rest of the agency that he means what he says.

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