By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced yesterday that it will allow 60,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina and now living in FEMA-provided trailers on the Gulf Coast to move into hotel or motel rooms if they are concerned about formaldehyde gas in their trailers.
The policy shift, made two weeks ago but not widely publicized until now, follows a House committee finding in July that FEMA leaders had suppressed warnings about the presence of high levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde, apparently to avoid legal liability.
The announcement brings full circle FEMA's costly and troubled housing response to the Katrina disaster. The agency hastily ordered $2.7 billion in manufactured housing, mostly through no-bid contracts, only to discover later that FEMA rules prevented the use of a third of the purchases in flood zones, where most victims lived, and that local communities would refuse to host large trailer encampments.
Lacking other options to house those displaced by the storm and flooding, FEMA at the same time spent another $1.8 billion on hotel rooms and cruise-ship cabins. The cost was many times what the agency later paid to rent apartments for the displaced, and government investigators concluded that occurred because of a fundamental lack of emergency planning and advance contracting.
FEMA eventually eliminated the hotel program and moved many storm victims into rental assistance, under pressure from federal courts and housing advocates. Still, about 120,000 families remained in trailers at the program's peak.
Under the new rule, FEMA will reimburse a household's motel bill for 30 days "or until more appropriate housing is located," and the reimbursement period may be extended on a case-by-case basis.
FEMA spokeswoman Alexandra Kirin called the new rule "more of a short-term solution."
"This is to get someone out of their trailer immediately for health concerns, but ultimately what they need to be looking for is something longer-term," such as rental housing, Kirin said. However, authorities have noted that such housing is scarce along the Gulf Coast.
FEMA said yesterday that, as of Aug. 24, its formaldehyde call centers had received 4,256 calls from those affected by Katrina and 2,875 requests for alternate housing. FEMA has moved 158 families with formaldehyde concerns. Another 316 households refused all housing alternatives.
All those who request to be moved from trailers will get hotel or motel lodging, Kirin said, if they agree to certain terms and conditions -- including that they will not be able to return to or purchase their trailer -- and acknowledge that FEMA may terminate aid with 14 days' notice.
FEMA confirmed on Aug. 1 that it had suspended the use and sale of travel trailers for emergency housing while it assesses their safety. The agency said at the time that it would continue to move residents out of temporary accommodations and into long-term housing.
"FEMA and the entire Department of Homeland Security are committed to ensuring that victims of disasters are safe and have a healthy place to live," FEMA Director R. David Paulison said.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on July 19 released documents showing that FEMA had ignored since early 2006 warnings from its field workers about health problems experienced by storm victims living in trailers.
FEMA stopped testing occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels that were 75 times the U.S.-recommended safety threshold for workplaces.
Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems. Long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.