FEMA’s Formaldehyde-Laden Trailers
February 3, 2010 6:16 p.m. EST
Tom Ramstack – AHN Correspondent
Washington, D.C., United States (AHN) – Congress Wednesday considered the possibility of sending trailer homes left over from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina recovery to Haiti to help with the earthquake response.
First, members of Congress asked for assurances that they have been cleansed of formaldehyde.
“They are presently living in tents,” Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.) said about hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced by the Jan. 24 earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince. “I’m sure these trailers would be very beneficial.”
He spoke during a hearing of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee to examine how lessons learned from the U.S. rescue effort in Haiti could benefit the United States.
Members of Congress generally were pleased by the U.S. emergency response, but said now the effort must turn to recovery.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent about 100,000 mobile home trailers to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to house residents whose homes were destroyed.
Shortly afterward, some of the trailer home dwellers became ill.
Formaldehyde, a chemical used for building materials that has been linked to cancer, was discovered inside.
Many of the trailers now have been unused for years and many of them are damaged.
FEMA is preparing to auction them off at prices far below the cost of new mobile homes but is running into opposition from the trailer home industry.
Industry officials say the auctions would dry up sales of new trailer homes during a poor economy, severely hurting their business.
They want the FEMA trailer homes shipped to Haiti.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, cautioned against a trailer home giveaway to Haiti unless they could be certified as free of dangerous chemicals.
“We wouldn’t want to be exporting a source of illness,” Oberstar said.
FEMA Assistant Administrator William Carwile could give no assurances that the trailer homes are available to help in the Haitian recovery.
However, he did say other lessons were learned by U.S. search and rescue teams. Among them was the need for a coordinated “command and control” system during international rescue efforts.
“There were over 40 teams from around the world down there,” Carwile said.
Their efforts might have been more effective with greater international cooperation, he said.
He also said FEMA and local emergency response agencies should consider organizing “light urban search and rescue” teams for small-scale disasters. They would use less equipment and personnel than the teams that respond to major disasters.
“It’s very low cost,” Carwile said.
He testified before the subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management while Congress is considering how much money to give FEMA in a multi-year funding bill. The bill also would determine how the federal government shares costs with urban search and rescue teams organized by states and cities.
An average urban search and rescue team costs about $1.7 million a year to train, pay and equip, said Matthew Bettenhausen, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency. The federal government pays about 10 percent of the cost.
He urged the federal government to pay a bigger portion of the cost.