Friday, July 20, 2007

FEMA's Depraved Indifference

Congressional investigators have uncovered the Bush administration's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) latest flagrant example of what can only be described as the agency's depraved indifference to the well-being of survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency's lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. 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.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers "could seriously undermine the Agency's position" in litigation.

On the eve of yesterday's hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use. But revelation of the agency's earlier posture -- in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress -- attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Well, you know it must be outrageous if House Republicans will actually join in criticizing the performance of an agency led by a loyal Bushie.

Typically, once their callous disregard for the storm victims was revealed, FEMA's honchos decided to change policy.

How big might this problem be?

About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.

Three trailer residents who testified before the panel 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.

"We have lost a great deal through our dealings with FEMA," said Paul Stewart, a former Army officer living in a trailer with his wife in Mississippi, "not the least of which is our faith in government."

FEMA's director then delivered a bald-faced lie to the congressional committee:

In his appearance at yesterday's committee hearing, FEMA Director R. David Paulison apologized and said "in hindsight" FEMA should have tested trailers earlier. "The health and safety of residents is my primary concern," he said. But he depicted the 200 or so complaints as voiced by a small fraction of the number of families in trailers, and he said more research is needed to determine why some trailer residents have become sickened and what level of formaldehyde is unsafe in homes.

Still, the latest FEMA fabricator is in no rush to act:

Paulison promised to consult with half a dozen U.S. health, environmental and housing agencies and with trailer manufacturers. He also acknowledged that concerns of environmental toxins in trailers go beyond formaldehyde. "There is an issue inside the trailers, but I don't know if it's formaldehyde, mold, mildew, bacteria" or something else, Paulison said.

Yeh, why rush when our people have been considered expendable from day one of the storms' aftermath.

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