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Katrina Victims Still Struggle With Housing Problems

March 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Centers for Disease Control found high levels of formaldehyde in trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house Hurricane Katrina victims. In the first of a series of reports, Betty Ann Bowser examines the housing problems along the Gulf Coast.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the first in a series of reports about housing troubles in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Tonight, a look at the trailers that housed thousands of evacuees. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Teams from the Centers for Disease Control recently fanned out along the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coasts to explain the results of the tests the agency did on 519 FEMA trailers.

Thousands of hurricane evacuees, like Heather and Mathew Durand (ph) of Slidell, La., have complained of widespread illness after living in the trailers.

KATRINA EVACUEE: … because we do have a lot of symptoms. You know, my husband has chronic asthma.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: One suspected cause: fumes from formaldehyde, a preservative found in materials used to build the trailers. The CDC tests showed on average trailers used by FEMA had unacceptably high levels of formaldehyde.

Dr. Heidi Sinclair, who runs a mobile health clinic, suspected the chemical was the cause of the skin rashes, headaches, breathing problems, and premature births she was seeing.

DR. HEIDI SINCLAIR, Baton Rouge Children’s Health Project: With acute, very high levels of formaldehyde exposure, there have been correlations with blood disorders, leukemias, nasal cancers, nasopharyngeal cancers.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Not probably, it’s a known carcinogen. And the question is: at what level and at what time period of exposure?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sheila and Damon Gordon think they may have seen the impact of formaldehyde firsthand. They’ve been living in a trailer with their daughter for two years while they rebuild their suburban New Orleans home.

SHEILA GORDON: We moved in about February of 2006. A year passed. We went through Christmas, January. My daughter began to get sick.

She was running a fever. It started with eyes. Her eyes was burning. Her eye got swollen, so I took her to her pediatrician, and he said he’d never seen anything like it. And he recommended me to bring her to Children’s Hospital.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After days of tests, 10-year-old Angel was diagnosed with leukemia.

SHEILA GORDON: And her body, her immune system couldn’t fight infections. It was like our life just went to nothing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Gordons wonder what, if anything, living in the trailer had to do with Angel’s illness.

SHEILA GORDON: When she got sick, you know, I kept telling myself over and over again, “It has to be the trailer.” She didn’t get sick until we moved in the trailer.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Angel, now 11, is in remission, but in the interim there’s been another tragedy.

SHEILA GORDON: I had a premature miscarriage. In December, right before Christmas, December 8th, my baby was stillborn. He was a boy, and I had to go through a burial, and it’s just been a really tough time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you all think that losing the baby was because you lived in the trailer, as well?

DAMON GORDON: Well, that’s the reason why — the doctor told us — I mean, I was there when she was delivering the baby at the same time. The doctor said something was wrong when the baby came out, because she was looking at his feet and his hands, you know, different things about his body that she’d never seen before.

Testing for formaldehyde

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All over the Gulf Coast, trailer residents have been unleashing their anger at the federal government for not taking action soon enough. The CDC's Michael McGeehin was the target at this town hall meeting in Baker, near Baton Rouge.

MEETING ATTENDEE: You're holding up to do that test until wintertime was with intent to get lower readings.

MICHAEL MCGEEHIN, Centers for Disease Control: First of all, we moved as quickly as we could to get to the field to do these tests.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Residents also charged FEMA and the CDC with suppressing evidence of a formaldehyde problem. McGeehin said the CDC could not act until FEMA asked it to do so last summer.

MICHAEL MCGEEHIN: ... because we had to figure out what needed to be done first. And we had four different activities that we were trying to do. And the main issue that then began to develop was the concern about formaldehyde.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Was any evidence on formaldehyde suppressed?

MICHAEL MCGEEHIN: No, not by my agency, no.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one at CDC suppressed negative information about formaldehyde?

MICHAEL MCGEEHIN: No, absolutely not, no.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As for FEMA, Jim Stark, its acting director in charge of Gulf Coast recovery, points to the work the agency did in 2006 as evidence they acted aggressively in response to concerns about formaldehyde.

JIM STARK, Federal Emergency Management Agency: We found out about the formaldehyde problem in the spring of '06. And we took some steps at that point, where we notified all our applicants that there was a presence of formaldehyde in most travel trailers and mobile homes.

And at that point, we offered to anyone who felt that their health was at risk to move. And we swapped out trailers. We moved people to different areas and moved on. As you may know, we also tested trailers in the fall of that year.

Suppressing test results

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A congressional investigation conducted last year showed that, in the spring of 2006, after a Louisiana man died from possible formaldehyde exposure, FEMA did do some limited testing on occupied trailers.

But after the results yielded levels of formaldehyde that were 75 times higher than the maximum workplace exposure recommended by the federal government, FEMA stopped testing occupied trailers.

Internal FEMA e-mails showed that FEMA attorneys advised, "Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

ANTHONY BUZBEE, attorney: We know that there were lawyers within FEMA who specifically tried to put a lid on the formaldehyde issue from the very beginning, that did not want to do testing, did not want to know about the complaints because of, quote, "litigation concerns."

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tony Buzbee is one of dozens of attorneys representing over 10,000 trailer residents in lawsuits. He says it wasn't until the congressional committee showed evidence of a possible cover-up at FEMA that the agency finally requested CDC testing.

ANTHONY BUZBEE: Why don't you take me inside a trailer and we can take a look at it?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Buzbee's law firm spent $800,000 doing some of its own independent tests on trailers. He recently visited some clients, like Duran and Tranace Battie (ph), to deliver those results.

ANTHONY BUZBEE: Well, your results in all three locations well exceeded what's considered safe by the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, in some cases, your results were many times what is considered safe.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Documents Buzbee obtained yesterday through the Freedom of Information Act show, even before trailers were distributed in 2005, FEMA was aware of testing done by the Department of Labor on unoccupied trailers. The results showed levels of formaldehyde that were much higher than what the CDC considers safe for chronic exposure.

In a response to the NewsHour, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said, "FEMA has not and will not suppress any information or documents associated with formaldehyde. FEMA has never, ever denied the presence of formaldehyde. Both FEMA and CDC have stated on record that formaldehyde is a building material used by the manufacturers since the beginning of the industry. FEMA is a consumer. We don't build travel trailers or mobile homes. We buy them, like any other consumer."

Liability of trailer manufacturers

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While Buzbee also plans to name FEMA in the lawsuit later this month, he lays most of the blame on R.V. manufacturers.

ANTHONY BUZBEE: The U.S. government did not manufacture these trailers. The U.S. government did not receive $2.7 billion, in many cases no-bid contracts, for these trailers. So, ultimately, I believe the responsibility will lie at the feet of the manufacturers.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bob Feldman is a consultant to many of the companies who rushed to build trailers for FEMA in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. He points to the fact that no official standard for formaldehyde in travel trailers has ever been set by the federal government.

BOB FELDMAN, Task Force for Disaster Relief Housing: The scientific community is exceedingly confused on this issue, and there are many competing government standards.

The industry does not defend formaldehyde. We're not here to defend formaldehyde. If formaldehyde levels need to be lowered, they will be lowered. We'll be at the head of the pack on that.

We're already reducing levels of formaldehyde, but we need the scientific community to forge a consensus so that there's clarity.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Furthermore, he says it's not even clear that formaldehyde is to blame for the illnesses seen among some Gulf Coast residents.

BOB FELDMAN: The CDC has said that they're studying the issue and they're continuing to study the issue to really try to understand the distinction between formaldehyde, mold, smoking, lifestyle habits in the unit, the frequency with which windows are opened or closed. In a small unit in which you have a family living for long periods of time, that contributes to air quality, too.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Such explanations don't offer much comfort to the Gordons, who are part of the Buzbee lawsuit. While we were shooting the story, FEMA moved them to a hotel.

But there are still tens of thousands of trailer residents who need to be moved before summer and that has raised the specter of another perhaps even bigger problem: Where are they all going to go?