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FEMA to buy back trailers due to formaldehyde worries

August 11, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

washington -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency will offer to buy back trailers purchased from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, because of concerns over formaldehyde levels, according to an internal memo by Director R. David Paulison.

"FEMA will refund the purchase price of any recreational vehicle sold, within the last 12 months, directly to an occupant, upon repossession of the unit," Paulison wrote in the preliminary directive.

FEMA has provided about 120,000 trailers to Katrina victims since September 2005. After occupying the trailers for a certain length of time, residents were given the option of buying them at a discount.

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said he was unsure how many people bought homes from the agency.

Testimony and documents presented at a July congressional hearing indicated that top FEMA officials had brushed aside field workers' concerns about formaldehyde despite residents' complaints about possibly related illnesses.

After the hearing, Paulison committed to testing the trailers, and FEMA suspended sales of them.

Paulison's internal directive also said that FEMA would not use any travel or mobile homes as housing during future disasters and that the agency would stop all sales permanently.

"No recreational vehicle. . . currently in FEMA's inventory will be installed, newly occupied, or (unless for the purposes of rendering into scrap) sold," Paulison wrote.

The directive said the agency would help families still temporarily residing in about 56,000 FEMA-owned trailers, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi, to find other housing if families asked it to.

And if housing isn't available in the immediate area -- a common complaint of Katrina survivors trying to move out of the temporary trailers -- FEMA will pay to relocate occupants nationwide, the directive said.

Walker said he was not sure when FEMA would announce its decisions to the public.

"We'd like to do it as soon as possible, but we're working through some logistical issues," he said.

Walker said the buyback would not apply to trailers purchased from the General Services Administration, which has been auctioning used trailers on its website. That agency sold the majority of used trailers.

A GSA representative said that from April 2006 to the middle of last month, the agency sold about 40,000 trailers.

Wanda Phillips of Purvis, Miss., who bought her trailer from the GSA website a little more than a year ago, complained about the buyback not applying to GSA sales.

"I don't think it's right," she said.

"It's reasonable to believe that Girl Scout cookies don't have poison in them, and it's reasonable to believe that if there was poison, the Girl Scouts would take care of it. I don't see why the same doesn't apply to the federal government," Phillips said.

On Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit against trailer manufacturers was filed by 500 individuals in New Orleans.

The lawsuit alleges that the 14 manufacturers of about 120,000 trailers for FEMA did not adhere to regulations on formaldehyde levels and that they are at fault for illnesses that may have resulted. FEMA is not listed as a defendant.

Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in building materials such as paneling, carpeting and glue.

At high levels, it causes respiratory diseases, bloody noses, headaches and insomnia.

It also has been linked to certain kinds of cancers.

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claudia.lauer@latimes.com

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