Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Legacy of FEMA Trailers: Meet "Little Wierdo"

Image: still from Becky Gillette interview with Katrina survivor Jennifer Donelson

My friend Becky Gillette is a real American hero. We've all heard about the hazardous levels of formaldehyde that were found in Katrina FEMA trailers; well, you can thank Becky for bringing this explosive story to the world's attention.

Here's what happened.

Shortly after Katrina's homeless population started occupying the FEMA-supplied manufactured homes - an industry euphemism for "house trailers" - rumors started to circulate that people who lived in the trailers were getting sick. Very sick.

Scratchy eyes, sore throat, couching, nausea, vomiting - the symptoms seemed to be universal. When people inquired into the coincidental nature of all the sudden ill health, they were told, in so many words, to go back in their trailers and shut up. 'Be glad to have any home at all' was the prevailing sentiment from the federal government officials who were sent down to smooth things over.

(You can read my FEMA Trailer post from last year: Wake Up and Smell the Formaldehyde.)

One of the very few environmentalists living on the coast at the time, Becky caught wind of the situation and doggedly pursued the story through the press and, with the Sierra Club, through the courts until the federal government was forced to admit that the trailers were not fit for human habitation. They subsequently forbade any government employees from entering the trailers on "safety" grounds, and measures were taken to move people into alternative housing.

In her interview with Katrina survivor Jennifer Donelson, the consequences of living in a toxic environment are revealed. Sitting on her couch and holding her Katrina baby, she tells about the excitement of when her family first moved in to their new trailer. "It had that great brand-new smell. I thought that was good! Of course," she says sadly, "it ended up not being good."

Jennifer goes on to tell how living with formaldehyde affected her child.

"We just called him Little Wierdo. We didn't know there was something really wrong with him." Shortly after birth, she noticed that her baby was turning blue. Then he stopped breathing.

I'll spare you the rest of the details; you can watch the interview here.

For her work, Becky was awarded a 2008 Sierra Club Special Achievement award. USA Today called her "Gulf Coast's Erin Brockovich." We need more people like Becky in this world.

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