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The U.S. Government, through FEMA, admitted this week that the travel trailers in which they housed thousands (millions?) who lost homes during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are toxic with formaldehyde. People who have lived in them–even for short periods of time–have become sick. We’ve known this for quite a while. It’s a story I’ve watched for almost two years since the first tests were conducted.

Formaldehyde is used in industrial applications, as well as for embalming by the funeral industry. It firms up flesh. Perhaps for the same reason, it is used in small amounts in some makeup. It adds positive qualities to some medicines and helps stabilize other chemicals. It is used as a disinfectant. It’s found in small amounts in every home due to the building materials used, such as carpeting, insulation, and plywood.

Formaldehyde, according to FEMA, is present in harmful quantities inside many of the FEMA trailers. The travel trailers were meant to be a short term solution for a major disaster. FEMA ordered hundreds of thousands of them to be built immediately after the storms. In some areas of New Orleans, “cities” of the trailers still exist as housing for the poor; in total, 38,000 families are still living in them.

My parents, spending time with me for Christmas of 2005 after losing their home in Katrina, received a phone call from a former neighbor who informed them that FEMA had parked a travel trailer in my parents’ front yard. They had neither requested one nor given permission for one to be placed there. But since it was there, they decided to make it a temporary home while deciding where they would relocate. They lived in the FEMA trailer for almost 6 months until they found a newly restored home to purchase.

Test results released by FEMA on February 14, 2008 showed formaldehyde levels in the trailers 5 to 40 times what is found in the average home. At the higher levels, the Centers for Disease Control says, there is concern for respiratory illness and long-term health effects. Formaldehyde is carcenogenic.

In the months following the hurricanes, people living in these trailers were becoming sick. Some began to notice nosebleeds, headaches, allergic reactions and more. Many of these people–unlike my parents–had nowhere to go. Many thousands had lost their homes with little or no insurance protection, yet still owed large sums on mortgages on the homes that no longer exist. They could not–can not–afford another home with a mortgage.  Public housing was largely destroyed and little has reopened. Though Congress appropriated funds, the state and federal governments failed in their efforts of delivering those financial resources, even to those who applied and were approved. The system simply fell apart.

Katrina hit in August, 2005. Trailers were built and moved into the Gulf Coast region in huge numbers that fall. Shortly after, health problems were being reported. Testing was begun. Now, two and a half years later, FEMA is releasing its report and urging travel trailer residents to live elsewhere. Where that will be is anyone’s guess.

About Ron Dauphin

Photographer, writer, proud dad, and UCC pastor.
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