Hurricane FEMA

Despite orders from the top and tests showing dangerous levels of formaldehyde, many residents of FEMA trailers are having trouble moving out.



Andy Nguyen got some bad news last week about his FEMA trailer. Nguyen, 20, lives in a 200-unit trailer park in Village de l'Est, a predominantly Vietnamese-American community in eastern New Orleans. A community organizer for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation told him that tests showed the formaldehyde levels in Nguyen's trailer were .323 parts per million. "I guess that's pretty high," Nguyen says.

Indeed, Nguyen's trailer tested more than three times the 0.1 ppm limit beyond which adverse health effects should be expected, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many scientists familiar with formaldehyde now regard that level as too high. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) set a "minimal risk level" much lower -- at only .008 ppm -- for airborne particles of formaldehyde in general year-round living spaces.

The air in Nguyen's trailer is more than 40 times that .008 ppm limit. His eyes had been burning and he'd had difficulty breathing ever since he moved into the trailer in January 2006. But, after shuttling between Houston and various relatives, who were also crowded into FEMA trailers, having his own trailer seemed like a luxury. "The smell was bad, and I had the coughing and trouble breathing," he says, "but I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. I kept thinking it was me."

Not surprisingly, he wants out, and he has made arrangements to move in with his cousin, who is rebuilding his house nearby. "I applied to FEMA for rental assistance," he says. "People in the community said I should apply." But Nguyen has since decided he'd rather live in his neighborhood and not have to face higher rent within six months when the subsidy, if he is approved for one, runs out. "I'm withdrawing my application to FEMA."

Nguyen is not the only person in the New Orleans area who wants to move out of a FEMA trailer. Like many others, he's not sure FEMA's help is worth the frustrations involved in trying to get it. Across the Gulf Coast, trailer residents realize the federal government's temporary housing solutions have created a whole new set of problems for them -- what one Mississippi resident calls "Hurricane FEMA."

Suspicion, confusion and frustration have greeted FEMA's announcements in recent weeks. The agency now wants to move residents out of 58,200 occupied travel trailers, promising rental assistance for some undetermined period of time or relocation to HUD-approved manufactured and mobile homes. The agency also announced it is halting all use, installation and sale of travel trailers -- and that it is buying back FEMA campers from those who purchased their trailers when FEMA offered them for sale (there are only three people in Louisiana who did so). For those who purchased used FEMA campers at auction from the General Services Administration (GSA), and now find the units contain elevated levels of formaldehyde, FEMA is trying to shift responsibility to the GSA.

The latest moves, by an agency that covered up formaldehyde problems for more than 18 months and stonewalled residents who asked to be relocated, followed an internal directive issued by FEMA Administrator David Paulison on July 31. Reeling from the scandal -- and a serious public pummeling by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform -- Paulison ordered that "any eligible occupant of any FEMA-owned travel trailer or park model who requests replacement or alternative accommodations" will be given four options. Those options include rental assistance up to the current authorized fair market rate; a manufactured home on a group or commercial site, if available; relocation to a hotel or motel, if rental housing or a FEMA-provided manufactured home is not available within a reasonable distance; and relocation to a rental unit anywhere in the continental United States, with transportation and rental assistance.

In addition, Paulison instructed FEMA staff to develop and implement "an aggressive program to utilize the authority of the Stafford Act to direct residents into leased apartments/rental units." The program is supposed to provide rental assistance above the current fair market rate limit of 125 percent, but not more than 150 percent, and encourage downsizing and closure of recreational vehicle group sites. It also promises transportation assistance and a refund of the purchase price of any unit sold directly to an occupant within the past 12 months.

At first blush, these provisions appear to offer a way out of the trailers. Earl Shorty, who has been living in a FEMA travel trailer in Renaissance Village ("The Formaldehyde Cover-up," News & Views, July 31, 2007), has been authorized to receive rental assistance for an apartment in Baton Rouge. But that aid came only after the death of his wife, Desiree Collins, from lung cancer and after months of phone calls pleading for relocation help when his wife was having trouble breathing. Shorty even hired an attorney, hoping to secure approval for six months of rent. He ultimately found the apartment himself -- and he will pay for his own utilities.

Yvonne Mitchell, who has been living in a trailer outside her eastern New Orleans home since it flooded, also secured rental assistance beginning in September. Mitchell has suffered nosebleeds, coughing fits and red, burning eyes. "But since I received the flyer about health problems and formaldehyde on my door a few weeks ago," she says, "I've been on their case constantly. I'm most worried about the coughing," says the 65-year old retiree. "I'm afraid of getting cancer, so I told FEMA I had to be moved. I'm kind of a fighter."

Mitchell is looking for an apartment in New Orleans but has learned that many are beyond her reach financially. FEMA maintains a searchable database of rental units at According to Andrew Thomas, a public information officer in FEMA's New Orleans office, the database contains roughly 4,500 rental units in Louisiana. Thomas estimates some 40,000 Louisiana families still live in trailers and need to be relocated. In the last month, the FEMA staff in New Orleans has received more than 1,200 calls about people who want to move out of their FEMA trailers, Thomas says.

A perusal of the database shows only 18 one-bedroom apartments, studios and single rooms at $500 per month or less in New Orleans. Yvonne Mitchell's Social Security check is about $1,000 per month. She remains optimistic, however. "With the FEMA rental assistance, I will have six months," she says. She's hoping her Road Home benefit will be finalized during that period. The Road Home program offers up to $150,000 to Louisiana homeowners to rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A report released last week by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center shows that only 22 percent of applicants have actually received benefits, and the average benefit has dropped by more than $12,000 to $68,734. "I haven't got the money yet, either," Mitchell says. "But I think within six months, I will be ready to rebuild."

Nancy Hirschfeld, who lives in a FEMA trailer on her property in Slidell, also is counting on her Road Home money for a permanent housing solution. Her camper tested at more than 0.1 ppm of formaldehyde with the windows open and her new $375 air purifier running. Hirschfeld asked FEMA for permission to remove carpets, replace pressed wood cabinets with real wood and put in a ceiling fan -- at her own expense. She was told she could change nothing. "On June 19 -- I've started writing everything down -- a woman from FEMA called to ask me if I was interested in purchasing the travel trailer. She told me I could improve the indoor air quality if I purchased the trailer by doing the things I'd been told I could not do." Hirschfeld declined.

Hirschfeld recently was offered rental assistance, but she doesn't consider that a viable solution. She suffers from chemical sensitivity and is particularly bothered by the pesticides used in most rental apartments. Hirschfeld, 65, lives on disability income. She worries that if she accepts a rental subsidy, she would have nowhere to live once it runs out.

"I lived in a tent for six months waiting for this trailer and took showers with a garden hose," she says. "It's better to have a roof over my head than no roof." With her Road Home money, she hopes to replace her mobile home, which Katrina destroyed. Until then, she'd rather limit her exposure to FEMA. "It's exhausting dealing with them," she says, "And I don't want any more of their programs, because none of them have worked for me."

At the 560-unit Renaissance Village in Baker, La., Dr. Heidi Sinclair, a pediatrician with the Children's Health Project, delivered formaldehyde test results last week to residents and discussed what the new FEMA directive might mean for them. "People don't know what to do, and they are afraid they are going to get kicked out of the only housing they have and can get," Sinclair says.

Sinclair divides her time between treating children at Renaissance Village, visiting schools and treating patients at Sugar Hill, a FEMA trailer park in Convent, La. When FEMA announced in July that it would work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test trailers for formaldehyde, residents at FEMA trailer parks assumed the agency would follow through with testing trailers. When that didn't happen, residents asked how they could get their trailers tested. "The eight tests we did at Renaissance Village were just a little sample to see if we should offer this on a broader scale," says Sinclair. "All eight trailers tested over the .008 level for chronic exposure. Only one was less than 0.1, and the others were between 0.1 and 0.3 ppm," Sinclair says. Based on those results, Sinclair says, the Children's Health Project will offer formaldehyde testing as a clinical service.

The formaldehyde test results in Renaissance Village have compounded residents' anxiety. To calm fears, Sinclair spoke with FEMA interagency coordinator Gail Tate in Baton Rouge last week about the agency's plans to put Paulison's directive into action. According to what she learned, if a trailer resident can find an apartment where the landlord will accept rent directly from FEMA, the resident will be approved to move in. The duration of the subsidy is unclear, however. Alexandra Kirin, a FEMA spokesperson in Washington, says, "FEMA will work with occupants on a case-by-case basis to identify alternative housing options. ... FEMA may authorize rental assistance when resources are available."

Those who, before Katrina and Rita, lived in housing subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), either in public housing projects or through a voucher program like Section 8, "are supposed to go back into Section 8 or HUD housing," says Sinclair. "FEMA will offer them three choices in terms of geographic location, as I understand it. Now, school has started, and many people are working here, and if they have to move again ... it's just more disruption."

FEMA also has announced no timeline for fulfilling its latest promises, says Sinclair. She was told that FEMA's priority will be clearing trailer parks on privately owned and leased land, such as the one in Village de l'Est. "Renaissance Village is on federal land," says Sinclair, "so it will not be a first priority."

For people like Nancy Hirschfeld, who are living in trailers at the site of their destroyed homes, "FEMA plans to tell them they should move back into their house," says Sinclair, "if possible."

But that's not an option for people who have no home left.

Katrina washed away Joe Fineran's home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and he has lived in two travel trailers since December 2005. The first tested at 0.38 ppm of formaldehyde -- nearly four times the higher EPA limit and 48 times the .008 ppm minimal-risk standard. The second tested slightly better, at 0.18 ppm. In both trailers, however, Fineran, 35, and his fiancŽe, Michelle, have suffered burning eyes, coughing and sinus attacks. "Even my dog is sick," says Fineran. "His nose is running all the time, his eyes are running."

Fineran asked FEMA to relocate him. Per the latest directive, FEMA has offered him a mobile home or a Katrina Kottage. Fineran would gladly take either one -- but he has been refused permits at every turn. FEMA won't approve a Katrina Kottage unless the soil on his coastal property passes stability tests. He's paying for soil tests, but so far the results are inconclusive. He can put a mobile home on his property if he can get a permit for it from the City of Bay St. Louis -- but the city has turned him down, saying it will only grant a permit if FEMA uses its federal authority to secure it.

After explaining the permit problem to a FEMA official last week and asking for help securing the mobile home permit, the FEMA staff member refused to intervene. "I said to her, 'Lady. I'm dying in this damn trailer.' And she says, 'Well, if you want to give up and die, go ahead.' I won't tell you what I said next," Fineran laughs.

Fineran is hoping the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will help him get a permit for the mobile home. Meanwhile, like many other victims of "Hurricane FEMA," he's still living in his trailer.

Amanda Spake, a former Senior Writer at U.S. News and World Report, is a Katrina Media Fellow. Research for this story was supported by the Open Society Institute.

Landlords who have units to rent and trailer residents who want to move out of their FEMA trailer should call FEMA's relocation unit at (888) 294-2822.

Andy Nguyen's eyes have burned and he has had trouble - breathing since he moved into his FEMA trailer in Village - de l'Est more than a year and a half ago. He recently - learned the level of formaldehyde in his trailer in eastern - New Orleans is 40 times the "minimal risk" level set by - the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Andy Nguyen's eyes have burned and he has had trouble breathing since he moved into his FEMA trailer in Village de l'Est more than a year and a half ago. He recently learned the level of formaldehyde in his trailer in eastern New Orleans is 40 times the "minimal risk" level set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
FEMA now wants to move residents out of 58,200 occupied - travel trailers in Louisiana, including the 200 in the trailer - park in Village de l'Est in eastern New Orleans. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • FEMA now wants to move residents out of 58,200 occupied travel trailers in Louisiana, including the 200 in the trailer park in Village de l'Est in eastern New Orleans.

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