NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Jury selection begins today in the first trial over toxic fumes in house trailers that FEMA distributed after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims say they were sickened by formaldehyde that leaked from the trailers. The lawsuits claims that manufacturers made substandard mobile homes in a rush to fill FEMA contracts for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes.
Hundreds of consolidated lawsuits have been filed in Federal Court here, claiming the FEMA-contracted trailers contain hazardous levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen that also causes respiratory disease.
In the case slated for trial, New Orleans resident Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, are suing Indiana-based trailer-maker Gulf Stream Coach and federal contractor Fluor Enterprises.
Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that averaged about five times higher than levels to which people are exposed in modern homes. FEMA downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008.
FEMA and the federal government are not defendants in this trial, but if the trailer manufacturers are found guilty of negligence, the verdict would raise questions, or at least illuminate, the federal government’s decision-making and contracting process.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier said he expects the defendants companies to blame FEMA, even though the government is not a party to the lawsuit and cannot be ordered to pay damages.
In January 2008, a congressional committee accused the George W. Bush administration of glossing over the results of a study on formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, to downplay the health risks to hurricane victims who lived in them.
In a 2008 letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Congressmen Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Nick Lampson, D-Texas, claimed that “FEMA officials actually hid, manipulated or simply ignored the scientific work and concerns of federal scientists to justify their own policy and legal objectives.”
Although FEMA trailers, which are about half the size of a standard U.S. living room, were intended to serve as temporary housing, lack of affordable housing kept thousands of storm victims from finding better homes well into the middle of 2008, when the government demanded that all inhabitants still living in FEMA trailers move out and relinquish their trailers.
As of mid-February 2007, almost 2½ years after the hurricanes, an estimated 90,000 people were still living in FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding over the trial, which is expected to take about two weeks.