For victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the discovery of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers is eroding what little faith they had left in the government. After enduring a botched response to Katrina and an agonizingly slow recovery, more than 35,000 families must now endure more upheaval as they pack up their belongings and move to motels or temporary residences while FEMA works up a plan.
In New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, among the hardest hit areas of the state, residents say they feel repeatedly victimized, not just by nature but by the government. In what has become another public relations fiasco for the Bush administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report confirming the toxicity of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers after pressure from Democrats in Congress and members of the Louisiana congressional delegation. An investigation by the House Committee on Science and Technology found that the report's conclusion "should have made been made more than a year ago...that the travel trailers are not safe for anyone to live in," according to chair Bart Gordon. "My committee's investigation over the past few months shows that FEMA delayed credible testing of the trailers, and the CDC failed to look at the health consequences of exposure to formaldehyde." Indeed, the CDC scientist who first blew the whistle on the findings has been the subject of "harassment," according to Gordon.
The formaldehyde fiasco is yet more evidence for the prevailing belief among some victims that the government doesn't care. "They knew about this formaldehyde situation and they tried to cover it up," says Gwen Adams, who cochairs a neighborhood association for the Ninth Ward. "It seems as though all our government agencies are failing us. FEMA has failed us with formaldehyde in trailers. The Corps of Engineers is not providing adequate protection with the levees. The federal government is asking us to pay taxes on Road Home [aid] funds. All the government agencies that are there to protect us as taxpaying citizens have failed us in one way or another."
Now, Adams, who rents an apartment in the Eighth Ward while trying to scrape together the funds to rebuild her own demolished home, is trying to help trailer residents prepare for another move. With many trailers now located on the site of demolished homes—many trailer parks in New Orleans were shut down—residents are reluctant to leave their properties for fear of theft or vandalism.
FEMA Administrator David Paulison is pledging a speedy transition to temporary housing. But for many, that's not good enough. "FEMA doesn't have much credibility," Adams said. "They need to find permanent housing solutions for these people."