Safety Lapses Raised Risks In Trailers for Katrina Victims

Nicole Esposito says her daughters Alyssa, 16 months, above, and Alexa, 4, developed health problems while the family lived in a FEMA trailer.
Nicole Esposito says her daughters Alyssa, 16 months, above, and Alexa, 4, developed health problems while the family lived in a FEMA trailer. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Within days of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in August 2005, frantic officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house the storm's victims, many of them using a single page of specifications.

Just 25 lines spelled out FEMA's requirements, with little mention of the safety of those to be housed. Manufacturers produced trailers with unusual speed. Within months, some residents began complaining about unusual sickness; breathing problems; burning eyes, noses and throats; even deaths.

Today, industry and government experts depict the rushed procurement and construction as key failures that may have triggered a public health catastrophe among the more than 300,000 people, many of them children, who lived in FEMA homes.

Formaldehyde -- an industrial chemical that can cause nasal cancer, may be linked to leukemia, and worsens asthma and respiratory problems -- was present in many of the FEMA housing units in amounts exceeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended 15-minute exposure limit for workers, the limit at which acute health symptoms begin to appear in sensitive individuals.

Weak government contracting, sloppy private construction, a surge of low-quality wood imports from China and inconsistent regulation all contributed to the crisis, a Washington Post review found. But each of the key players has pointed fingers at others, a chain of blame with a cost that will not be known for years.

Already, 17,000 plaintiffs who lived in FEMA units have alleged damaging health consequences, from respiratory problems to dozens of deaths and cancer cases, in a federal class-action lawsuit naming 64 trailermakers and the federal government. Many of the plaintiffs were drawn from the roughly 350,000 people who unsuccessfully filed claims against the Army Corps of Engineers over the levee breaches that flooded New Orleans.

The CDC reported this month that Hurricane Katrina led to increased complaints of lower-respiratory illnesses among 144 children studied in Mississippi, but it found no difference between those who lived in FEMA housing and those who did not. However, the CDC said the findings could not be generalized beyond the sample, and the agency is conducting a broad, five-year study of the storm's health impact on children across the Gulf Coast area.

"I still can't believe that we bought a billion dollars' worth of product with a 25-line spec. There's not much you can do in 25 lines to protect life safety," said Joseph Hagerman, a Federation of American Scientists expert who is leading a $275 million effort, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, to develop new emergency housing. "There's over 20,000 parts in these homes."

FEMA, for its part, faults manufacturers of the trailers, which are wheeled, and the mobile homes, which usually sit on concrete pads. Some trailermakers used cheaper, substandard wood products in the rush to meet production targets, increasing emissions of the cancer-causing chemical, according to industry officials and analysts.

Companies say that federal guidelines were inconsistent and that they relied on suppliers to deliver quality materials. In turn, wood suppliers blame cheap, high-formaldehyde-emitting plywood imports that flooded the U.S. market during the recent housing boom.

R. David Paulison, who became acting FEMA administrator two weeks after the storm hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, acknowledged missteps but said changes are needed far beyond his agency. "We're taking all the darn heat. . . . You would think that I ordered them with extra formaldehyde so they didn't rot or something," he said.

"The manufacturers have been skating by on this thing," he said, noting that many trailers bought by FEMA were on sale to consumers. "This is bigger than FEMA. This is bigger than FEMA," he said, repeating for emphasis.

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