Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A hurricane of failure

As much as I want to, I just don't have time to do the post I wanted to do on this before I go, so I'll have to limit myself to this:

Just over a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and portions of the Gulf Coast, I was finally able to bring myself to write about the gross neglect, the utter indifference of high officials,
the gross, foul, disgusting, inhuman, self-serving lies of those who could have done more, who could have done better, who could have acted, who knew, who knew but who just didn't care, as their lies mount a stink greater than the fetid fumes of death that reek in the streets of New Orleans but who now want to cover their tracks [to] conceal the blackness in their souls....
It's moving on towards a year and a-half later. And the lies and the indifference show no signs of abating.

Writing in The Nation, Amanda Spake describes how
[a]long the Gulf Coast, in the towns and fishing villages from New Orleans to Mobile, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are suffering from a constellation of similar health problems. They wake up wheezing, coughing and gasping for breath. Their eyes burn; their heads ache; they feel tired, lethargic. Nosebleeds are common, as are sinus infections and asthma attacks. Children and seniors are most severely afflicted, but no one is immune.

There's one other similarity: The people suffering from these illnesses live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
In the wake of Katrina, FEMA purchased over 100,000 trailers as "temporary" housing for the storm's refugees. About 275,000 people are still living in them - despite the fact that most of them are less like trailers to live in and more like camper trailers to vacation in. That is, they were never intended for long-term use. Yet people are being forced to live in them for months on end.

There is another problem: Many of them extensively use wood composites and particle board that emit formaldehyde.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that more than 0.1 parts per million of formaldehyde in air can cause eye, lung and nose irritation. ... Yet there is no federal standard for formaldehyde in indoor air, or for travel trailers, and no consensus on whether any "safe" level exists. ...

Many residents suffering from symptoms, however, are afraid to complain to FEMA, fearing the agency will take away the only housing they can afford. It was complaints of respiratory problems to the Sierra Club that led the organization to test fifty-two FEMA trailers last April, June and July. Some 83 percent of the thirteen different types tested had formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit.
At holding stations where groups of trailers were held, it was even worse: In one case, OSHA measured concentrations in outdoor air at 30 to 50 times the EPA-suggested limit.

In a rush to get units after the hurricane hit, the government contracted with trailer manufactures to produce the units. In the rush to get them out, not only did quality control tend to nosedive, but companies took whatever supplies for manufacture they could get, which often included getting them from countries that produce particle board and the like that emit high levels of formaldehyde.

Significantly, there are no formal standards for exposure to formaldehyde in indoor air. What's more,
[i]n Congressional hearings last February, Richard Skinner, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, testified that some trailer contracts "did not specify minimum specifications requirements, making it possible that some trailers ... had significant deficiencies." Even those made according to specifications, Skinner said, were accepted by FEMA "without any formal inspection procedures."
Only now has FEMA undertaken to test its trailers. At some point or another, after the survey, after the analysis of the survey, and no doubt after the analysis of the analysis of the survey, the results should - or, if history is a guide, might - be released to the public. In the meantime, the illnesses continue and accumulate.
Last month FEMA agreed that those displaced by Katrina could remain in their trailers until August of this year. That's six months longer than the eighteen months mandated by federal law. No one expects this to be long enough. Very little new or affordable housing is being built on the Gulf Coast, and prices and rents for existing homes have skyrocketed because of the short supply. ...

It seems clear that many Katrina evacuees living in FEMA trailers will be in them for months, if not years.
And if they ever do get out of them, it's reasonable to wonder if they've have a city to go back to. Reuters reported on Monday that
[o]nly about 200,000 of the pre-Katrina population of 480,000 is back and much of the city is still damaged and abandoned. Recent news stories have said a growing number of those who returned are leaving because they are fed up with the slow recovery and the crime.
The New York times described some of those families in an article on Friday.
A year ago, Ms. Larsen, 36, and Mr. Langlois, 37, were hopeful New Orleanians eager to rebuild and improve the city they adored. But now they have joined hundreds of the city’s best and brightest who, as if finally acknowledging a lover’s destructive impulses, have made the wrenching decision to leave at a time when the population is supposed to be rebounding.

Their reasons include high crime, high rents, soaring insurance premiums and what many call a lack of leadership, competence, money and progress. In other words: yes, it is still bad down here. But more damning is what many of them describe as a dissipating sense of possibility, a dwindling chance at redemption for a great city that, even before the storm, cried out for great improvement. ...

For every household that, like this one, has given up, there is another on the verge.
Langlois reported a lack of response from city agencies to the point where he had given up any expectation of ever getting one.
Some say the overall effect is negligible. Greg Rigamer, a demographer who has done work for the city, said that the lack of housing had constrained the recovery, but that many residents remained fully committed to the city.

“The pattern in is certainly stronger than the pattern out,” Mr. Rigamer said. ...

[But o]ne oft-cited survey by the University of New Orleans found that a third of residents, especially those with graduate degrees, were thinking of leaving within two years.
And so those who proposed in the wake of the storm that the city just be abandoned - just as many of the people have been - may be getting their wish.

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