Katrina Victims Have No Faith in FEMA's Promises

The last three years have been hell for the Huckabees.

After their apartment was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi family lived in two trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both of which contained high levels of formaldehyde.

Since moving into their first trailer after the 2005 hurricane, Lindsay and Steve Huckabee and their five children have endured a variety of illnesses — asthma, headaches, sore throats and respiratory illnesses — that read like a toxicologist's list of likely symptoms for exposure to the carcinogen.

Six-year-old Laila has had two surgeries for sinus problems, and father Steve has now developed mouth tumors.

"The ENT [ears, nose and throat doctor] said in his 23 years of practice he had never seen a tumor in that spot before," Lindsay Huckabee, coughing with a screaming child in the background, told ABCNews.

"He said it was extremely rare and could have been from the fumes, because he breathes through his mouth," she said.

Now the family, whose children range in age from 2 to 13, has learned the government will move them, along with thousands of other people, into a hotel or other temporary housing.

"We've been through this before," said Huckabee. "They offered us 30 days in a hotel, and it had two double beds in one room and no kitchenette," Huckabee said.

That's hardly enough room for a family of seven, and housing isn't the family's only concern. The Huckabees are now spending $300 a month on steroids for Laila's sinuses in addition to multiple medical co-payments and money lost from missing days of work to take care of their sickly brood.

High Level of Fumes

After health complaints in 2006, about 1,000 families in Louisiana asked FEMA to move them to new quarters, and lawyers for a group of victims asked a federal judge to order FEMA to test for fumes.

The Centers for Disease Control, working with FEMA, tested the air for formaldehyde fumes in 519 trailer- and mobile homes between Dec. 21 and Jan. 23. The testing revealed that some trailers contained fumes at levels nearly 40 times the customary exposure level.

The CDC and FEMA announced Thursday that Gulf Coast hurricane victims will be moved out of their government-issued, formaldehyde-laden trailers as quickly as possible.

Of the 143,000 people who were originally given trailers, about 105,000 have since been moved, FEMA said Thursday, leaving about 38,000 people still living in trailers.

"This is really about people," CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding said at a press conference. "They have great faith and courage in us, and I hope we can help them relocate."

FEMA has promised an array of short-term benefits in addition to housing, including moving benefits, storage and even consultation with specialists to keep families near schools and work. Pet care is also included.

Priority will be given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

But FEMA announced no plans to pay for the long-term health problems facing those, like the Huckabees, who lived in the toxic trailers for up to two years.

'Victimized Again'

"We have victimized the Katrina victims again by putting them in unsafe shelters, and then again with future health problems," said Leslie March, who helped test trailers for the Sierra Club in New Orleans.

The Sierra Club began air quality tests in 2006 after receiving health complaints. The environmental organization found that about 83 percent of trailers tested had formaldehyde levels up to three times higher than the EPA workplace limit.

The Huckabees' symptoms started just days after moving into their first trailer in Kiln, Miss. Lindsay, 26 and pregnant, began having migraine headaches, and the four children had constant upper respiratory problems.

One daughter, who had been asthma-free for two years, had a recurrence, and Lindsay had pre-term labor contractions during her latest pregnancy and delivered five weeks early. The baby, now 2 years old, has been in the hospital with asthmatic bronchitis.

Their doctor finally advised testing the first mobile home and found double the acceptable levels of formaldehyde. FEMA replaced that home with another, which also tested positive for formaldehyde.

Environmental Group Steps In

Formaldehyde, a toxic chemical most often used for embalming, is used as a glue in building materials. Under hot, humid conditions it can leak into the air.

For that reason, FEMA said it wants all trailer occupants out by the summer, when temperatures rise and hurricane season begins again.

"This is a real vindication for people that have been trying to raise the alarm about this for two years," said Becky Gillette, a volunteer for the Mississippi Sierra Club, who led the effort to test trailers.

'Sick All The time'

But the Huckabees and others don't want to move, and say government efforts are not enough. Steve Huckabee earns $38,000 a year as a land surveyor, and Lindsay has just taken a job at a Waffle House restaurant to help with the bills.

"All the medicine they have to buy is what a mortgage payment would be, and she's not getting any help," said Gillette, who has heard the health woes of hundreds of families whose children are sick. "They can't save money because they are sick all the time and the kids are out of school. How can they rebuild?"

Those who have been working with victims say there is already a shortage of affordable housing in the Gulf region. Huckabee said rents in her town have jumped from about $900 a month to up to $1,500 a month.

"They claim they are going to get everyone out really quickly," said Huckabee, who testified to Congress on the family's health problems. "But they did that did this before, and I don't think there were enough hotel rooms. I guess we are going to have to wait and see."

The CDC said they would go "door to door" to hand deliver individual home tests to begin a registry of health problems and the long-term effects of the formaldehyde exposure. A broader-based children's health study is also in the works.

At the press conference, FEMA head R. David Paulsin vowed "to continue aggressive action to provide for the safety and well-being" of trailer residents.

Case workers will offer people advice on their medical, employment and educational needs, he said. They will also assist with the relocation and care of pets and help provide furnishing.

"We do care about these people, but we did not have a lot of information," said Paulsin. "[The trailers] were the only toolbox we had at the time."

Sierra volunteers say FEMA has "side-stepped" the larger issue of who is going to pay for the long-term health effects of the formaldehyde exposure.

"They ought to be embarrassed," said Sierra's March, who tested 30 trailers herself. "I never heard such a long list of promises from an agency that's not shown us they are worthy of our faith. I am praying they are not giving us false hope."