Manufacturers of the trailers provided to families displaced by Hurricane Katrina were criticized today by lawmakers who demanded to know why temporary homes exposed storm victims to unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
On Wednesday, California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his investigation found that the government's leading supplier of the trailers, Gulf Stream Coach Inc., knew about the public health dangers and did nothing about them.
Waxman's investigation also found that four of the 11 occupied trailers tested by the trailer manufacturer had formaldehyde present at a level that is sufficient for medical monitoring.
Formaldehyde, a chemical widely used in building materials, can cause a variety of adverse health effects at high levels, such as watery eyes, burning in the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, coughing, wheezing and rashes, as well as triggering asthma attacks.
"No one was looking out for the interests of the displaced families living in FEMA trailers," Waxman said. "FEMA failed to do its job, and the trailer manufacturers took advantage of the situation.
"The health of thousands of vulnerable families was jeopardized," he said.
Today's hearing was the latest in a long string of criticisms over how the government managed Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Not only has the government been slammed for responding too late when the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, but today, the committee released more findings about how it also supplied the region's newly homeless residents with trailers with dangerously high levels of formaldehyde.
According to the investigation, Gulf Stream employees manufacturing the trailers complained about the use of materials with a "foul" and "very strong chemical odor" that was "just overwhelming."
People living in the trailers also complained directly to trailer makers. "There is an odor in my trailer that will not go away," said one occupant of a FEMA trailer in Jefferson, La. "It burns my eyes and I am getting headaches every day. Please, please help me!"
Lindsay Huckabee lived in two mobile homes with her husband and five children since December 2005 after losing their apartment during Hurricane Katina. Though their homes were not the travel trailers specifically named as the main source of complaints, the Huckabees said that their trailors did test for high levels of formaldehyde and their children suffered from year-round allergy-like symptons and constant infections.
"When the first formaldehyde [issues] came up, I had a very optimistic opinion that FEMA did the best they could with what they had at the time," Huckabee said. "But I think that knowing [now] what they knew at the time, I feel like they intentionally, neglectfully endangered us because they knew."
Huckabee and her family moved into a motel in March, and this week, moved into a FEMA cottage.
Today, CEOs of several manufacturers that supplied FEMA with the trailers during the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including Gulf Stream, Forest River, Pilgrim International and Keystone RV, defended themselves.
"Our employees are proud of the product we make and the company they have helped build," said Peter Liegl, president and CEO of Forest River, who lost his composure at the witness table. "I must also tell you, candidly, that many of our workers are now confused and hurt at the charges about the quality of RVs."