The Formaldehyde Cover-Up
Evidence shows that FEMA attorneys, apparently fearing lawsuits, quashed early attempts to test evacuees' trailers for dangerous levels of formaldehyde. This article, published in the July 31, 2007, Gambit Weekly, investigates the toxic trailers and the agency's efforts to cover up the crisis.
Image: Toxic Trailers
Amanda Spake

Earl Shorty and Desiree Collins, longtime residents of New Orleans, have lived in a FEMA trailer since returning to Louisiana in February 2006, after Hurricane Katrina. Initially, the couple's trailer was located near Armstrong International Airport, but they eventually moved to Renaissance Village, a "FEMA trailer park" outside Baton Rouge.

Earl, 51, has endured nosebleeds and respiratory distress, but Desiree suffered even more. "In the trailer," says Shorty, "from the time she would walk in, she would take two steps, and she couldn't catch her breath." She coughed for up to eight hours at a time, but when out of the trailer her breathing improved.

A manager at a local Burger King when Katrina hit, Desiree, then 45, had been diagnosed with cervical cancer at Charity Hospital in August 2005. Until then, their lives had been pretty good in New Orleans. She had her job, Earl drove a truck full-time, and they rented a downtown apartment that they loved. After Katrina, they landed in Atlanta, where Desiree was treated at Emory University Medical Center. Since then, her regular pap tests indicated she was in remission. Yet, she had to be hospitalized several times for breathing problems since moving into their FEMA trailer.

"The FEMA lawyers knew they were putting us into an unsafe environment. They could have gone to Congress and asked for funds to build apartments. But they just did nothing—and covered it up"—Earl Shorty

By June, Desiree's ability to breathe was deteriorating. Shorty called the local FEMA number given to trailer residents and told them his wife could barely breathe, and he needed help. He was told to find another place to live. Shorty explained he was a day truck driver and didn't have the up-front money to pay a security deposit and a month's rent. Couldn't FEMA arrange for some sort of temporary housing in an apartment or a hotel, just until his wife was better? "FEMA told Shorty there was nothing the agency could do to help him," says Justin Woods, the couple's New Orleans attorney.

On June 15, Desiree was admitted to Baton Rouge Medical Center, unable to breathe. Her most recent pap test, shortly before she entered the hospital, had indicated her cervical cancer was still in remission. "The doctor told me, 'Look Mr. Shorty, I'm going to be straight with you. We don't know exactly what is wrong with your wife.' They said her respiratory system was getting bad and they said they saw white stuff on her lungs." Doctors considered a lung biopsy, but Desiree did not want her chest opened. "I'm scared," she told Earl.

On July 2, Desiree Collins died.

Woods, the couple's attorney, says she died of lung cancer, diagnosed only days before she passed away. How much longer she might have lived had she not been breathing potentially toxic air inside the couple's FEMA trailer for 17 months is unknown, but a continual exposure to formaldehyde may well have shortened her life. "The FEMA lawyers knew they were putting us into an unsafe environment," Earl Shorty says. "They could have gone to Congress and asked for funds to build apartments. But they just did nothing—and covered it up."

Indeed, the story of toxic levels of formaldehyde in the 120,000 trailers that FEMA supplied to Katrina and Rita evacuees—and the agency's cover-up of the crisis—is still unfolding. At a minimum, more than 5,000 internal emails, many made public on July 19 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government, reveal what committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) calls "an official policy of premeditated ignorance."

For more than a year, Waxman and Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.) had been demanding documents from FEMA on what the agency knew about formaldehyde in the trailers, with little result. Ultimately, the committee had to use its subpoena power to dislodge internal communications from the agency.

What the documents show is that FEMA knew about the formaldehyde problem a year and a half ago and engaged in a concerted effort to hide it from Congress, trailer residents, other federal agencies—even its own field staff, which consistently raised the issue to higher ups. Fearing litigation, FEMA attorneys in Washington stopped the agency's field staff from admitting the problem, from testing trailers, even from relocating sick individuals who asked to be moved.

One man, dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, could not breathe in his trailer—a result, according to his doctor, of formaldehyde causing his lungs to swell. After FEMA failed to relocate him, he moved on his own into a motel. A FEMA staff member wrote to superiors: "He said he had nowhere to go, and he was dying with cancer. He would not go back to the travel trailer as he had a violent reaction to the formaldehyde..." FEMA agreed to pay his motel bill, then FEMA attorneys cut off payment a week earlier than the agency had promised, suggesting he seek help at a "charitable organization."