Test results indicate FEMA travel trailers are toxic. And the Centers for Disease Control wants people out of them by this summer. The CDC made that determination after finding extremely high formaldehyde levels in several of the 519 trailers and mobile homes just tested.
The warning issued Thursday by the CDC was what so many hurricane victims feared. In some of the travel trailers and mobile homes tested last month, formaldehyde fumes were as much as 40 times higher than acceptable exposure levels. So the CDC told FEMA to do whatever it takes to empty the temporary homes, even if that means moving people back into hotels.
"We do care about the people. We're moving as fast as we can," FEMA administrator David Paulison said during a 45 minute news conference.
But not fast enough for Shirley Middleton. In the two years she's lived in a Harrison County FEMA park, her health has deteriorated.
"Your sinuses clog up and everything, and it's hard to breathe," she said as she walked around the County Farm Road park. "But you come outside and you breathe fine."
Residents like Mrs. Middleton felt trapped. They kept complaining that their temporary homes were toxic. But nothing was done to ease their concerns. That changed in December and January, when the CDC tested random trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Dr. Julie Gerberding is the head of the CDC.
"That snapshot is helping us understand and confirm what we suspected all along, that in some of these situations, the formaldehyde levels were high enough where there could be a health hazard to the people who are living there," she told the media.
The CDC wants people out of FEMA trailers before the summertime heat makes a toxic situation even worse.
So, where will 38,000 Mississippi and Louisiana families go?
"FEMA is continue our aggressive acts to provide for the safety and well being of the residents of these travel trailers by finding them all housing," Director Paulison said.
That includes finding apartments for many of the hurricane survivors. Or, the agency will see if some Mississippi cottages are still available. And if that doesn't work, FEMA will do what it did right after the storm. It will check hurricane victims back into hotels and motels.
"We haven't worked up a cost estimate yet. It really doesn't matter," Paulison said. "We have to move people out of the travel trailers."
WLOX News has been reporting on formaldehyde concerns inside FEMA trailers for almost two years. That's why the first question director Paulison had to answer today was why it took FEMA and the CDC so long to finally look into the health complaints. His answer was that the agencies didn't have enough information about the health risks at the time. Paulison then emphasized that FEMA has moved more than 100,000 people out of temporary trailers and into permanent housing since Katrina hit.