EDITORIAL: House FEMA elsewhere

Jun 5, 2008

Palm Beach Post–June 05, 2008

Palm Beach Post Editorial

It’s never easy to get a straight answer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even at its highest levels.

A few months after Director David Paulison promised to stop using trailers to house storm victims, one of his top aides is putting out a different story as hurricane season begins. Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson told Congress on Tuesday that a disaster similar to Hurricane Katrina could force FEMA to “deploy all available options, which will include travel trailers.” In other words, the new housing plan for 2008 looks a lot like the old, disastrous housing plan from 2005.

FEMA will replace Mr. Paulison’s broken promise with two new promises: Victims will be housed in the trailers for no more than six months, and all temporary units will be tested to ensure that formaldehyde levels are low. At least 500 Gulf Coast families displaced by the storms remain in trailers. About 100,000 families once occupied the FEMA units and could face long-term health problems. More than 90 percent of the trailers tested showed dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a construction preservative linked to cancer and respiratory problems.

It took months of prodding before FEMA took seriously the health complaints of those in trailers. It took months longer for the agency to agree to test air quality. More months passed before FEMA got serious about moving families out. Because FEMA stonewalled for three years, there’s no alternative to trailers ready for hurricane season.

FEMA has a housing problem of its own. It’s stuck inside the Department of Homeland Security when it needs to stand alone, outside of the bureaucracy and accountable.