Tuesday, February 26, 2008

100,000 Gulf Coast Residents Face Imminent Eviction

100,000 Gulf Coast residents currently living in FEMA trailers face eviction in the next two to three months. These are the same folks that fought for their lives through the storms and flood waters of 2005. Then they fought to find a place to live, any place. Instead of finding a home, they moved into 32 sq. foot trailers, often far from supportive communities and family members. When residents of trailers began complaining of skin rashes, respiratory problems, itchy eyes, and other health problems in early 2006, FEMA ignored them. When outside groups tested the trailers and found high levels of formaldehyde present, FEMA ignored them. In fact, FEMA kept providing those same trailers to additional residents with the the knowledge that they might be putting the residents at risk. Now, almost 3 years after the trailers were first provided to residents, FEMA wants them out. After hundreds of thousands of children, elderly residents, pregnant women have been exposed to 2 ½ years of obscenely high levels of formaldehyde, FEMA wants them out and has no plans to take care of the health and housing crisis that looms ahead. Though FEMA has not yet set a date or given most residents notices of eviction, these next steps are sure to follow soon.

Where are the 100,000 residents supposed to go? FEMA has no plans for permanent housing for the FEMA trailer residents. In fact, while HUD is taking over rental assistance for Gulf Coast residents who were provided with FEMA rental assistance until last fall, FEMA has announced that HUD has no such longer term plans for rental assistance for residents evicted from FEMA trailers. In addition, while private rental housing has been built and rebuilt at an extremely fast rate, the supply cannot keep up with the need, and the rents are still double and sometimes triple the prices before 2005 in New Orleans. Moreover, almost 50% of these residents are homeowners in Louisiana, still waiting for Road Home Program funds, and many who have already received their rebuilding funds have become the victims of contractor fraud, leaving too many to count still in their FEMA trailers outside their gutted homes. These homeowners face imminent eviction from their FEMA trailers and as one resident put it to me last night, “I know I’m going to be under the Claiborne Bridge by May and after two years of fighting I can’t believe it is going to come to that.” The Claiborne Bridge underpass is now home to the homeless families that had been living in protest in a park in front of New Orleans City Hall until the Mayor decided to fence the park off last month when the Sugar Bowl came to town.

What is more, what medical treatment is being provided today to take care of the rashes, respiratory and other health effects of long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde? I met a gentleman last night who is living in a FEMA trailer park in Port Arthur, Louisiana. He told me he has been asking FEMA for 2 years to see a doctor to talk about his breathing and other health problems which developed after he moved into his trailer. FEMA has done nothing and he has already used up all of his allotted Medicaid doctors visits for the year.

FEMA will not be able to use this formaldehyde scare, the same issue that these residents raised with FEMA over two years ago, to get residents out of their FEMA trailers quickly, silently, and without a plan to deal with the long-term health problems they have caused and permanent, affordable housing options for these folks. These residents have been continuously fighting for lives, they have spent too many long hours dealing with FEMA’s bureaucracy and have even found time to develop community plans, which they have presented to FEMA, which would allow FEMA to move folks out of trailers equitably and safely. It is now FEMA’s turn to respond with the same energy and respect that the trailer residents have shown. It is time for FEMA to step up and respond with real recovery efforts dedicated to these people, which we have been waiting on for far too long.

To begin with, FEMA needs a plan that goes beyond hotel rooms for these residents. If HUD is not going to take over rental assistance for trailer residents who are being evicted, what long-term plan is in place? We are particularly worried about the elderly and the disabled trailer residents, many of whom have been left behind and will continue to be left behind in any movement to find permanent housing. As the CDC recommends, multi-agency collaboration will be required to achieve safe, healthy, permanent housing for these residents.

Secondly, the long-term health problems of these residents and their immediate and continuing need for medical assistance must be addressed immediately. The CDC recommends that FEMA should consider establishing a health registry and long-term assistance to the Louisiana and Mississippi Health Departments to ensure adequate monitoring and medical follow-up. We expect no less from FEMA, and more from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and other state and federal health agencies.

Lastly, these residents have been telling FEMA what they needed all along. They have been arranging meetings, signing petitions, developing plans, and writing letters, all to no avail. We expect FEMA officials to start listening to the people and step up to the task of providing for their needs. These folks know what they need... they have been saying it all along.

The KatrinaRitaVille Express (www.krvexpress.org) outside of the CDC/FEMA Meeting in Baker, Louisiana, on Monday February 25, 2008.

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