Within days of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in August 2005, frantic officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house the storm's victims, many of them using a single page of specifications.
Just 25 lines spelled out FEMA's requirements, with little mention of the safety of those to be housed. Manufacturers produced trailers with unusual speed. Within months, some residents began complaining about unusual sickness; breathing problems; burning eyes, noses and throats; even deaths.
Today, industry and government experts depict the rushed procurement and construction as key failures that may have triggered a public health catastrophe among the more than 300,000 people, many of them children, who lived in FEMA homes.
Formaldehyde -- an industrial chemical that can cause nasal cancer, may be linked to leukemia, and worsens asthma and respiratory problems -- was present in many of the FEMA housing units in amounts exceeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended 15-minute exposure limit for workers, the limit at which acute health symptoms begin to appear in sensitive individuals.
Weak government contracting, sloppy private construction, a surge of low-quality wood imports from China and inconsistent regulation all contributed to the crisis, a Washington Post review found. But each of the key players has pointed fingers at others, a chain of blame with a cost that will not be known for years.
Already, 17,000 plaintiffs who lived in FEMA units have alleged damaging health consequences, from respiratory problems to dozens of deaths and cancer cases, in a federal class-action lawsuit naming 64 trailermakers and the federal government. Many of the plaintiffs were drawn from the roughly 350,000 people who unsuccessfully filed claims against the Army Corps of Engineers over the levee breaches that flooded New Orleans.
The CDC reported this month that Hurricane Katrina led to increased complaints of lower-respiratory illnesses among 144 children studied in Mississippi, but it found no difference between those who lived in FEMA housing and those who did not. However, the CDC said the findings could not be generalized beyond the sample, and the agency is conducting a broad, five-year study of the storm's health impact on children across the Gulf Coast area.
"I still can't believe that we bought a billion dollars' worth of product with a 25-line spec. There's not much you can do in 25 lines to protect life safety," said Joseph Hagerman, a Federation of American Scientists expert who is leading a $275 million effort, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, to develop new emergency housing. "There's over 20,000 parts in these homes."
Substandard wood products
FEMA, for its part, faults manufacturers of the trailers, which are wheeled, and the mobile homes, which usually sit on concrete pads. Some trailermakers used cheaper, substandard wood products in the rush to meet production targets, increasing emissions of the cancer-causing chemical, according to industry officials and analysts.
Companies say that federal guidelines were inconsistent and that they relied on suppliers to deliver quality materials. In turn, wood suppliers blame cheap, high-formaldehyde-emitting plywood imports that flooded the U.S. market during the recent housing boom.
R. David Paulison, who became acting FEMA administrator two weeks after the storm hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, acknowledged missteps but said changes are needed far beyond his agency. "We're taking all the darn heat. . . . You would think that I ordered them with extra formaldehyde so they didn't rot or something," he said.
"The manufacturers have been skating by on this thing," he said, noting that many trailers bought by FEMA were on sale to consumers. "This is bigger than FEMA. This is bigger than FEMA," he said, repeating for emphasis.
A price has already been paid by trailer residents such as Nicole Esposito, 25, a full-time warehouse worker in Slidell, La. She first noticed her toddler's symptoms after moving into a FEMA trailer in April 2006: an endless series of coughs, colds, sinus infections, earaches and pink, crusty eyes. Treatments and antibiotics had no effect, and soon Alexa, now 4, and later her newborn sister, Alyssa, now 16 months old, regularly needed atomizers to help them breathe.
Last August, doctors said they suspected the cause was exposure to formaldehyde, and told the single mother to leave her trailer at once. "My girls, they could have all these problems the rest of their lives," Esposito said, her voice breaking, ". . . and the doctors still don't know any more."
On Sept. 4, 2005, one week after the storm, Paulison's predecessor, Michael D. Brown, declared that FEMA was "pulling out the stops" to find housing for 237,000 Katrina evacuees who were staying in shelters, the largest internal displacement of Americans since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The price of haste was, inevitably, waste. FEMA bought $762 million worth of mobile homes, most of them unusable in coastal flood zones under FEMA rules because they could not be moved quickly in case of another storm. After an intervention by then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), FEMA spent $249 million to lease cruise ship cabins, which evacuees largely refused to use.
FEMA bought 21,300 mobile homes and 33,100 trailers off dealers' lots for $1.4 billion using one page of specifications, according to interviews and documents provided by the agency. It paid manufacturers $931 million to produce an additional 76,800 trailers using eight pages of custom requirements, again with limited safety standards and no mention of formaldehyde.
Paulison said FEMA incorporated applicable federal codes in ordering the mobile homes. Regarding trailers, which are not subject to federal regulation, those sold to the public and to FEMA in the past produced few complaints, he said. "We bought them in good faith, just like we have for the last 20 years."
The largest housing orders were filled by Fleetwood Enterprises and Gulf Stream Coach. FEMA's $520 million order from Gulf Stream, the largest from any builder, exceeded the company's reported 2004 recreational vehicle sales and was its first direct federal contract.
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas present at background levels in nature but emitted from the resins and glues used in many construction components, including particleboard flooring, plywood wall panels, composite wood cabinets and laminated countertops. Emissions are greatest in warm weather and when trailers are newly constructed, the conditions experienced by Katrina victims on the Gulf Coast.
But manufacturers did not discuss, nor did FEMA ask, if it would be safe to house evacuees in trailers for 18 months or more with such materials. "They did not," Paulison said. "I don't think they were asked, either."
A spokeswoman for Fleetwood, based in Riverside, Calif., whose subsidiaries produced 10,600 trailers and 3,000 mobile homes for FEMA, said the company did not discuss the formaldehyde issue with the agency. "You know, when something hasn't been a problem, you often don't suddenly consider that it will be. I don't believe that anybody expected these people to stay in the trailers as long as people have stayed in them," Kathy Munson said.
Fleetwood said its trailers, which were built with only higher-quality, low-emitting wood products that the company said met federal standards for mobile homes, had the lowest levels of formaldehyde, with only 10 percent exceeding the CDC benchmark. Gulf Stream's trailers had the highest levels, with more than 50 percent topping the CDC standard.
‘Relied on the representations’
Gulf Stream's lawyers said in a letter to congressional investigators that the company mostly met a "longstanding policy" to buy components that comply with mobile home standards, but it acknowledged exceptions. They said the firm "did not conduct any testing on components or parts" but instead "relied on the representations" of its suppliers about their quality.
Brian Delaney, a Gulf Stream spokesman, said he could not respond to questions, citing in part litigation. Among other companies whose trailers tested high in the CDC study, Keystone RV declined to comment. Forest River referred questions to the industry's trade group, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Dave Hoefer Sr., chairman of Pilgrim International, said the pending lawsuits limited what he could say, but he pointed out that FEMA specifications prompted his company to put in fewer sidewall openings than usual, which may have restricted ventilation. He said his company had never received a complaint about formaldehyde and used its usual materials to build Katrina trailers.
An industry association spokesman, Robert Feldman, said symptoms may be caused by mold, Katrina-related chemical spills, smoking or local climate factors. "There may be a rush to conclude formaldehyde is the issue when in fact the results seem to suggest the answer is a little more complex," he said.
However, others said that in 2005 and 2006, much of the nation's hardwood plywood came from Asia and was high in formaldehyde. China's share of the North American market has grown from 4 percent to nearly 40 percent since 2001, according to the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association, which represents North American producers.
"The most likely source of formaldehyde in the Katrina trailers and in all travel trailers are composite wood products . . . [and] the most likely source for those materials are imported products," primarily from China, said Elizabeth Whalen, director of corporate sustainability for Columbia Forest Products, of Portland, Ore., the association's largest U.S. plywood manufacturer.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) demanded a U.S. trade investigation after domestic producers complained in 2006 that containers of imported hardwood plywood reeked of formaldehyde, products advertised as having low formaldehyde emissions were falsely labeled and sample tests showed levels much higher than allowed in federal housing.
"There's no real enforcement authority by the government," said Gail Overgard, vice president of Timber Products in Springfield, Ore.
No binding safety standard exists for formaldehyde in any U.S. homes, even though the chemical was classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2004 and is deemed a probable carcinogen by the U.S. government.
But early this year, the CDC reported that 41 percent of the trailers it tested in December and January had levels of formaldehyde greater than 100 parts per billion, the level that the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends as safe for 15 minutes of exposure by workers.
California health regulators estimate that lifetime exposure to formaldehyde at 100 parts per billion increases cancer risk by 50 cases per 100,000 people.
"Even at levels too low to cause . . . symptoms, there could be an increased risk of cancer," the CDC reported in February. Because the tests were done in winter, they understated exposure levels during warmer months, the agency said.
J. Joe Donaldson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that "pediatricians along the Gulf Coast . . . all reported epidemic problems with asthma and respiratory symptoms . . . covering the time of the hurricane, and, although it's diminished over time, it's ongoing. I personally believe that formaldehyde did play a significant part in the problem."
Despite its hazards, the chemical's presence in homes has largely escaped regulation. In 1985, after consumer complaints and lawsuits, Washington imposed a limit on the amount of formaldehyde emitted by plywood and particleboard in mobile homes -- but did not restrict how much of that wood can be used.
The Housing and Urban Development office that enforces those rules has a small budget of $6 million and a staff of 13 based only at headquarters. Robert Wilden, who directed the office in the 1980s and 1990s, said in an interview that while the industry "benefits from minimal regulation," it lobbied for cuts in the office's budget.
When HUD set the formaldehyde limit for wood in mobile homes 23 years ago, it said it anticipated that the resulting ambient air levels would be less than 400 parts per billion, or quadruple what the CDC says is problematic. The RV industry association points out that, according to the CDC tests over the winter, levels in 99 percent of the Katrina trailers fell below that threshold.
The use of formaldehyde in trailers is unregulated because they are considered vehicles, not homes, and because their makers say they are typically used a few days at a time, a few times a year.
"The RV industry is generally unregulated, and lobbying efforts have succeeded in keeping it that way," said Connie Gallant, head of the RV Consumer Group, which represents trailer owners.
California regulators recently enacted the nation's tightest formaldehyde limits on wood products, setting limits 60 percent below HUD standards by next year and 75 percent below by 2011. The rules are expected to become a de facto national standard.
FEMA, meanwhile, has barred the future use of trailers, and required that mobile home builders use wood that emits virtually no formaldehyde. The RV industry has embraced HUD and California standards.
FEMA has relocated more than 4,000 families after receiving 11,000 health complaints, but about 22,000 of its trailers remain occupied despite a CDC recommendation that all residents be moved to safer housing. As of May 1, more than 3,000 mobile homes were still occupied.
Paulison said that in the absence of a legally binding safety standard for residential air quality, FEMA will do the best it can in providing disaster housing. But, he complained, "There is no national standard for formaldehyde levels in American homes -- not conventional . . . homes, not [mobile] homes."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.