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Katrina Victims Still Struggle With Housing Problems

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.

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