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Helping the Katrina Homeless New Orleans is struggling with a growing number of sick and disabled people who have become homeless since the hurricane. This crisis will only get worse until local, state and federal officials come together behind a plan that finds short-term housing for them immediately, and permanent affordable housing for them quickly.
Congress can start by approving a modest, $73 million in funding to house many of the region’s ill and disabled residents, who would also be provided with psychiatric and social services. Such a measure passed the Senate, but it is facing resistance in the House.
Congress also needs to take at least two additional steps to prevent even more people from becoming homeless in New Orleans, where rents have soared since the storm. It should extend the disaster housing assistance program, which is set to expire in March 2009, so more people are not forced into the streets. It should also rewrite federal disaster law to permit the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide the long-term assistance that thousands of hurricane survivors are clearly going to need.
In New Orleans, homeless services agencies estimate that the homeless population has doubled since the storm. The homeless are said to be sicker and more severely disabled than in the past. Outreach workers have come across people suffering from severe mental disorders, as well as from cancer, AIDS and end-stage kidney disease.
In what could be a harbinger of things to come, 30 percent of the people surveyed in one homeless encampment reported that they had moved onto the streets after being cut off from Federal Emergency Management Agency housing assistance or while living in a household that had lost the benefit.
The state of Louisiana has committed itself to creating 3,000 units of supportive housing targeted to extremely low-income families, which includes many people with disabilities and special needs. But for the units to be affordable, Congress must pass the $73 million in funding to pay for rent subsidies.
This would be a terrible place to economize. The dollar amount is small, and the lives of some of this country’s most vulnerable citizens — who were already abandoned once by their government — are at stake.
The standoff started on June 3 after authorities say the man ran off Federal Emergency Management Agency workers who were talking with him about reclaiming his trailer.
Police say he placed his hand on his gun near his waistband, and ordered the workers to leave.
The man then locked himself into a neighboring home.
SWAT team members say the 49-year-old man fired at officers when they entered the home.
He was shot early this morning when he allegedly pointed his pistol at the officers.
The man’s brother told police that he had been mentally ill for years.
Archives of General Psychiatry
Mental illness conclusions:
The high prevalence of DSM-IV anxiety-mood disorders, the strong associations of hurricane-related stressors with these outcomes, and the independence of socio-demographics from stressors argue that the practical problems associated with ongoing stressors are widespread and must be addressed to reduce the prevalence of mental disorders in this population.
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Here’s a quick time line of events on FEMA’s toxic trailers and the consistent work by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR).
- Aug. 2005 – FEMA provides 120,000 trailers. About 40,000 are currently used by displaced Gulf Coast residents.
- March 2006 – FEMA recognizes the presence and danger of formaldehyde in its trailers, but does not notify the public.
- May 2006 – The Sierra Club, an environmental group, tests FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana and finds high levels of formaldehyde.
- Fall 2006 – FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency test these trailers for formaldehyde, and send the test results to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a partner agency of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Feb. 2007 – ATSDR reviews the test results and advises FEMA that formaldehyde levels in trailers "were below those expected to produce adverse health effects."
- July 19, 2007 – The US Congress Oversight & Reform Committee holds hearings to investigate FEMA’s failure to respond to complaints about formaldehyde in trailers.
- Dec. 21, 2007 - Jan. 13, 2008 – CDC tests over 500 FEMA trailers for formaldehyde.
- Feb. 1, 2008 – FEMA announces that it will close trailer parks and evict residents by June 1, 2008.
- Feb. 12, 2008 – CDC publicly announces that FEMA trailers have unsafe levels of formaldehyde, and urges the people living in FEMA trailers to move.
- Feb. 25-28, 2008 – CDC holds public meetings in Louisiana that provides about 10 minutes for a full question and answer session with people living in FEMA trailers and the public.
A look at the work by the federal health agency ATSDR in Louisiana communities prior to Hurricane Katrina
Mossville, LA - ATSDR has determined that African Americans living in Mossville, LA, which is located next to Lake Charles, have elevated levels of dioxin in their blood. Dioxin is a toxic group of the deadliest chemicals known to science, which cause cancer and other severe health problems. However, ATSDR failed to recommend any action to prevent ongoing exposures to the dioxins that are routinely released by several of the industrial facilities near the Mossville community.
Agriculture Street, New Orleans, LA - ATSDR supported EPA’s removal of heavily contaminated soil while residents of the Agriculture Street neighborhood in New Orleans remained in their homes. ATSDR summarily determined that the elevated concentrations of the numerous toxic chemicals and heavy metals below ground, and the potential adverse health effects of residents being exposed to unearthed toxins, did not warrant any protection such as relocating residents during EPA’s excavation work.
Gert Town, New Orleans, LA - ATSDR co-authored a health consultation report that failed to assess the health condition of Gert Town residents in New Orleans who live near the shuttered Thompson Hayward facility that once mixed and blended DDT and other harmful pesticides and herbicides. Instead, ATSDR confined its report to an analysis of a few yard samples collected by EPA, and concluded that a "thick grassy cover of their yards" would protect residents’ health.
FEMA is stepping up plans to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of their government-issue trailers because of high levels of formaldehyde. Some questions and answers about the situation.
- How many trailers are involved?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says 25,162 trailers are still occupied in Louisiana, 10,362 in Mississippi. The trailers were made by several companies. Some were made specially for FEMA.
- Why are so many people still in trailers 2 1/2 years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, and wiped out coastal counties in Mississippi. While Mississippi’s recovery has been more robust, red tape and underestimates of the cost of rebuilding in Louisiana have kept thousands from returning to their homes. Rental housing in many areas is scarce or expensive. For many people, the trailers have been the only option.
- What’s the health risk?
Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been linked to cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the test results can’t be used to draw any conclusions about other mobile homes.
- When did occupants first report health problems?
In 2006, some trailer occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds. Other have reported difficulty breathing. Lawyers for hundreds of storm victims charge trailer makers produced inferior products in a rush to fill FEMA’s demand for thousands of units. Several consolidated cases against trailer makers are before a U.S. District Court judge in New Orleans.
- Why did it take so long to act?
Documents released last July after being subpoenaed by a congressional committee indicated FEMA lawyers discouraged officials from pursuing reports the trailers had dangerous levels of formaldehyde. At the time, Democrats and Republicans criticized FEMA for its limited inspections or tests of trailers whose occupants reported various respiratory problems. CDC testing began in December.
- How rapidly are people being moved from trailers?
FEMA says 800 to 1,000 households move out, on average, per week. FEMA’s new plan, announced Thursday, does not provide a timeline for getting everyone out of the trailers though it hopes to have the task done by summer. The elderly, infirm, families with children and people with respiratory ailments are expected to get priority.
- What’s FEMA’s process?
FEMA is trying to move trailer residents to apartments or other housing, including hotels, motels and small post-storm houses called "Katrina cottages." It’s a multitiered process, like so many other recovery programs, and it is unclear how soon residents will be able to move. Priority will go to those who have health problems or are at risk, such as the elderly, households with young children and people with respiratory ailments.
- I live in a FEMA trailer. What are my options?
FEMA staff is available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381 or 1-800-621-3362.
CDC specialists will respond to health concerns at 1-800-232-4636.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After downplaying the risks for months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it will rush to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of roughly 35,000 government-issued trailers because tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency hopes to get everyone out and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.
"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fumes from 519 tested trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.
The findings stirred worry and anger across the Gulf Coast, where FEMA is already a dirty word and housing has been scarce since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005.
"Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am. They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems," said Lynette Hooks, 48. She said that since she began living in her trailer outside her damaged New Orleans home in October 2006, she has suffered headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.
The CDC findings could also have disturbing implications for the safety of other trailers and mobile homes across the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Capitol Hill on Thursday. But the CDC study did not look beyond the FEMA housing.
Paulison vowed that the agency will never again use the flimsy, cramped travel trailers to shelter victims of disasters. Mobile homes are generally roomier than trailers and considered less susceptible to buildups of fumes.
FEMA will press ahead with plans to supply leftover, never-used mobile homes from the twin disasters to victims of last week’s tornadoes in the South, Paulison said. But the mobile homes will be opened up, aired out and tested first, he said.
The formaldehyde levels in some trailers were found to be high enough to cause breathing problems in children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory trouble, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said. About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, she said.
Gerberding said the tests could not draw a direct link between formaldehyde levels and the wide range of ailments reported by trailer occupants. But the CDC urged people to move out as quickly as possible.
As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
But as recently as last spring, a FEMA spokesman said the agency said no reason to question the safety of its trailers. Just last month, congressional investigators accused FEMA of suppressing and manipulating scientific research to play down the danger — an accusation the agency denied.
"I don’t understand why FEMA bought trailers in the first place that were dangerous," said Henry Alexander, 60, who has been living in a trailer since February 2006. "You would hope they would test them for formaldehyde before. I’m very angry that another agency had to step forward and say they were a health risk."
Chertoff said at a Senate committee hearing that the government has trying since last summer to prod people to move out of the trailers, but it has been difficult to get them to do so because the housing shortage means they might have to move far away, and because they are being allowed to live in the trailers rent-free.
Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one point, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.
Paulison had no estimate of how much it would cost to put people in hotels, apartments and other housing.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fumes can cause burning of the eyes and nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest.
The CDC examined only FEMA housing and cannot draw any conclusions about the safety of prefab homes elsewhere, Gerberding said. But "I think we’re going to learn a lot more in the next year or two," she said after a news conference at FEMA offices in New Orleans.
"It seems like I have had more respiratory problems since I have been in the trailer," Roger Sheldon, 60, said in Pascagoula, Miss. But he was not ready to blame formaldehyde "You know you can walk into any new trailer, or house for that matter, and things like new carpet can cause irritation."
"To be honest, I’m thankful to the government," he added. "I don’t like the trailer, but it beats the alternative for now."
With housing still in short supply — 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, the pace of rebuilding has been slow, and rents are out of reach for many — Ernest Penns of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward said he, too, was grateful for his trailer: "I got nowhere else to go."