FEMA officials are searching for a quick and efficient way to get people out of their FEMA trailers and away from the possibility of formaldehyde contamination. That move comes a week after congressional hearings on toxins in trailers, and as federal officials prepare to test trailers still in use in Mississippi and Louisiana.
On Tuesday, FEMA officials told WLOX News they are not sure exactly when the air quality testing will begin. Instead of doing the actual testing this week, the Center For Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will simply gather information to figure out how the tests will be done.
FEMA officials also say they have suspended all sales and donations of FEMA trailers until the air quality study is complete. In the meantime, FEMA is aggressively looking for rental property and apartments to relocate as many trailer residents as possible.
MS FEMA Operations Director Sid Melton said, "As rental resources become available and being that we are paying for it, we are able to move people out of a trailer into rental resources. FEMA continues to pay for it. So as much as we can do that, it serves two purposes. It gets them out of the trailer and gets them into a more permanent type of environment for their family."
Melton says the Katrina cottage program is also helping to move residents out of FEMA trailers.
A Bay St. Louis man who testified before Congress about formaldehyde inside FEMA trailers, says the decision to conduct air quality tests is "like repainting a dirty wall."
WLOX News first brought you Paul Stewart's story about FEMA trailer trouble back in March of 2006. Stewart had done his own tests which he says proved the formaldehyde level in his trailer was double the EPA's acceptable standard.
Paul Stewart says more a year passed between the time he first sounded the alarm about high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers and him being asked to share his story on Capitol Hill. However, realizing there was a problem with his FEMA trailer took only one night.
"My eyes were burning," said Stewart. "Nose was scratchy. Throat was scratchy. Coughing all the time. So we knew immediately something was wrong with the camper. "
Stewart testified before a Congressional panel on Thursday. The next day FEMA announced the trailers would be tested for air quality. But Stewart is leery about the results of such tests.
"They're not doing anything to change the facts," said Stewart. "What they're going to do is they're going to go out and test these campers allegedly and then they're going to go out and quote "try to mitigate the problem."
According to FEMA there have been 200 Formaldehyde complaints out of the 45 thousand of trailers that have been disbursed in Mississippi. Stewart believes people who don't have any other place to go, feel they can't afford to complain.
"The Sierra Club contacted me and asked me if I would help them test other campers. We went to Bay Village and the overwhelming concern was, 'You can test my camper as long as you make sure FEMA doesn't take if away from me.'"
"This is not an imaginary fear. Look at real life, where people are living today, what's going on in their lives. Because without that FEMA trailer, even as poisonous as it is, they're back on the street. But you know they shouldn't also have to decide between living in a poisoned camper and living on the street."
Stewart says he and his wife went through three FEMA trailers before deciding to buy their own camper. He has his own ideas about what should be done with the thousands of trailers.
"For FEMA to do the right thing, they need to crush these campers and get rid of them," he said. "Understand that they made a mistake, get rid of them and just move on. Because all they're going to do is perpetuate the problem and make more people sick by trying to save a few bucks here and there."
According to FEMA, there are still more than 17,500 FEMA trailers in Mississippi. FEMA officials say the CDC will look at overall air quality and not just formaldehyde levels. FEMA officials say they don't know when the CDC will start the tests.
"We just know they're in Louisiana to set up some parameters as far as the humidity, atmosphere, how people are living," said Melton. "Then they'll come to Mississippi and do the same. They'll go back and set up their own standards for testing. How people are living. Their own day to day life. Whether you're a smoker. Whether you have animals. Whether you're a heavy cleaner. A lot of those impact air quality, especially in a small 240 foot trailer. "
FEMA officials say they've gotten about 200 calls complaining of Formaldehyde. At its height, there were 45,000 trailers in Mississippi.
FEMA trailer residents with concerns about the air quality in their campers are encouraged to call 1-866-562-2381.