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Report: FEMA Mishandled Toxins in Trailers

Rick Jervis

As of last month, nearly 3,000 trailers across the Gulf Coast still housed victims from the hurricane disaters of 2005. (Mario Tama, Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS - The Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't react quickly enough to reports of toxins in trailers housing victims of Hurricane Katrina, endangering the health of thousands of victims across the Gulf Coast, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

The 79-page report released Thursday is the first detailed accounting by Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, of the way the emergency agency handled reports of formaldehyde in temporary trailers housing Katrina victims. Many of those victims reported bloody noses, blackouts, headaches and other more severe problems due to formaldehyde, a colorless, strong-smelling gas often produced in the manufacture of building materials and classified as a carcinogen.

"FEMA did not display a degree of urgency in reacting to the reported formaldehyde problem, a problem that could pose a significant health risk to people who were relying on FEMA's programs," the report read.

Other findings include:

• FEMA officials announced they had found hazardously high levels of formaldehyde in occupied trailers in February 2008, more than two years after the first storm victims were housed in them.

• FEMA caused a two-month delay in trailer testing in 2007 because it didn't have a public communications strategy in place for Congress, the media and trailer occupants.

• The emergency agency didn't do enough quality control to prevent obtaining the formaldehyde-affected trailers in the first place.

FEMA officials said Thursday they agreed with the OIG report's findings and have implemented policy changes such as improved air quality standards in temporary housing to avoid a repeat after future disasters.

"We recognize that there is still work to be done, and FEMA will take all appropriate and necessary steps," FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said.

As of last month, nearly 3,000 trailers across the Gulf Coast still housed storm victims, down considerably from the 134,000 right after Katrina in 2005, according to FEMA. The agency has said it made it a priority to vacate the temporary trailers after formaldehyde and other toxins were found in the trailers.

The report vindicates many environmentalists who first raised alarms about the formaldehyde, said Oliver Bernstein, a spokesman for Sierra Club. But he said more needs to be done.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions about hurricane preparedness and evacuee housing that hopefully this report calls some attention to," he said.

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