Congress needs to ensure that FEMA's negligence in providing people with trailers with high levels of formaldehyde in them is not excused.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week asked for immunity from lawsuits over the high formaldehyde levels in the trailers it used to house Hurricane Katrina victims. FEMA says it did not build the trailers, merely bought them, so the manufacturers should be held solely responsible.
A U.S. attorney argued before a federal judge on July 23 that FEMA's response to the natural disaster is legally protected since the agency was exercising governmental discretion. Only Congress, he said, has the authority to address the agency's possible negligence. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt of the Eastern District of Louisiana is taking the request under advisement. Attorneys for the plaintiffs expect a ruling in the next two or three weeks.
Congressional hearings have revealed that FEMA knew about the formaldehyde problem in its trailers and failed to take action for almost two years. FEMA's lawyers advised the agency not to test for toxicity in order to avoid liability -- but that advice may have left FEMA vulnerable to even greater liability. Those familiar with this gray legal area say the government agency could be held liable for several reasons.
Of course, FEMA is trying to pass the buck and direct the lawsuits towards the companies that manufactured the trailers. In some ways, yes, I can agree with proceeding against the manufacturers. But for FEMA to provide the trailers and do nothing for two years is unacceptable.
The reasons for the shoddy work are problematic for FEMA. Their employees were present--and set the specifications for--the trailers as they were being manufactured. Cheap materials and low-cost procedures were used (I have visions of half-assed trailer components being slapped together with cheap glue by people who didn't give a shit, don't you?). It's hard to escape liability when the people who manufactured the trailers were under your nose and doing what you told them to do. I think the manufacturers should have cried foul and refused to build with formaldehyde. The problem is, whistle-blowers are often driven out of business or punished for exposing government corruption. Until we reform the government whistle-blower laws and protect the rights of people who speak out, we are going to have debacles like this.
Sadly, the government's terrible response to Hurricane Katrina continues to this day. Alabama football boosters have great condos to use now, but the actual people flooded out and driven from their neighborhoods are still living in trailers manufactured with poisonous materials inside:
Three years after Hurricane Katrina, many people are still living in the FEMA-issued trailers. The trailers were never intended for long-term housing -- they were meant for short-term, emergency use only.
This has only exacerbated the effects of the building specifications set by FEMA, which fall below federal safety standards.
"The fact that people are still in those trailers," said [David] Super of the Univ. of Maryland, "is a failure on FEMA's part."
Yes it is, and that failure should not be excused away with immunity