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Published: Monday, 6/9/2008

Those trailers, again

THE travel trailers made available to house Gulf Coast residents left homeless by the wrath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 came to symbolize the lethal incompetence of the Bush Administration.

It turned out that the trailers were contaminated with dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a toxic health hazard. Accordingly, the top official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency vowed that they would not be used to shelter victims of any future catastrophe.

But, as the 2008 hurricane season begins, it appears this was just one more administration promise made to be broken.

A draft of FEMA's plan for hurricane response this year reportedly contains weasel wording that would allow the head of FEMA to authorize continued use of the trailers, provided that they meet the agency's requirement for minimal levels of formaldehyde. There is, however, no industry standard for acceptable amounts of formaldehyde in travel trailers.

Formaldehyde is a preservative commonly found in building materials. Exposure can lead to breathing problems and possibly cancer over the long term. The government sets standards for indoor air quality for materials used to build mobile homes, but not travel trailers.

Thousands of hurricane victims housed in the trailers have complained of respiratory problems.

FEMA Director R. David Paulison has said there will be no more trailer use while he's in office, but his deputy administrator won't make the same guarantee. To foreclose use of the trailers would mean "putting our heads in the sand," said Harvey Johnson. Mr. Johnson says bluntly that, in the event of another hurricane like Katrina, the government would have to use all available options, "which will include travel trailers."

If the hurricane season, which began last week and runs through November, is as busy as forecasters predict, the need for interim housing for displaced residents could be great.

If that happens, FEMA says it will work to find available rental units and perhaps hotel and motel accommodations. However, as a last resort, the travel trailers, which incredibly still are being occupied by some 500 families, may be used to temporarily house survivors with the stipulation that they stay in them no longer than six months.

Skeptics might wonder how such an egregious mistake could be made twice, especially when it puts the lives of helpless people in danger. But that would be underestimating the incompetence of an administration that seems never to learn from its errors.

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