Delvin Cree: FEMA trailer problems still an issue in Indian Country

Over two years ago I addressed some health issues surrounding Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers that my tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was receiving.

These trailers came in the form of travel trailers and mobile home units. We received hundreds of them. Our reservation was soon blanketed by white structures that became known nationally as toxic tin cans.

The health issues surrounding these FEMA trailers have been discussed among a few community members and tribal leaders over three different tribal administrations -- both current and previous councils. These trailers, which were used in the Gulf region after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, had high levels of formaldehyde that posed a high risk to human health.

These same trailers in my opinion had been abandoned and the upkeep of these trailers was not up to par. Many sat for several years in hot and humid conditions. In some units, the vent cap on the trailer roof had been blown off by high winds, which left a opening so rain and air moisture could enter the trailer structure, thus creating mold problems.

Tribal leaders were told these travel trailers were to be used for recreational and not for housing purposes. Despite the concerns, it was surprising to see these FEMA trailers arrive when housing shortages seemed to have heightened on the reservation. In a sense, these units were to become the "quick fix" to our housing crisis.

I witnessed the mold and extensive water damage firsthand when I went to Purvis, Mississippi, in the summer of 2008. I went with a brother-in-law and his father to retrieve one of these travel trailers during the hot summer weather. While there, it was hard to breathe in some trailers because of the smell. Something apparently was in the air which burned my eyes and throat.

The exterior of the trailer we brought from Mississippi was cleaned after it arrived in North Dakota. During the wash down, water seeped into the interior part of the structure and caused it to get wet inside.

After removing some of the flooring material in this trailer -- which looked very new and in good shape -- I uncovered hidden mold in the walls and flooring. I sent pictures to Washington, D.C., to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, whose members addressed the situation.

In one of my letters published, I mentioned some of the health problems associated with formaldehyde toxins that can create irritated eyes, cause breathing problems, headaches, asthma attacks, coughing, congestive heart disease, nausea, depression, memory-impairment, skin rashes, respiratory problems and can lead to cancer. This information came in a report provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These same trailers might hurt our diabetic population. Skin rashes created by formaldehyde could have an devastating affect on younger and older diabetic tribal members.

As my tribe was requesting these FEMA campers and mobile homes, tribal officials cited our homeless population. But it was obvious most of these trailers were not going to the homeless.

Today a great number of them sit in the yards of people who have nice homes and don't fit the category of being homeless. Some tribal employees have received travel trailers. It was stated by some tribal leaders the homeless could use these travel style trailers for recreational purposes and the mobile homes for temporary housing, which made sense.

The tribe eventually stopped receiving the trailers but many have ended up in the state's oil patch and have been sold or rented. This is an issue federal and tribal officials should address because it was stipulated that the units were not to be sold or used for housing purposes.

Since the devastating hurricanes, a number of legal issues surrounding the FEMA trailers have arisen. National news organizations have made health issues a concern in many stories they have published.

In a recent Associated Press article, the Middleton Journal ran a story which stated "Nearly two dozen FEMA trailers makers agreed to pay a total of $14.8 million to resolve claims over elevated formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers following hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

In another story, reporter Marilyn Odendahl of etruth.com states, "In April, almost 24 RV manufacturers reached a $14.8 million dollar settlement with the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These plaintiffs say they are suffering from a number of health issues because of the elevated levels of formaldehyde that were in the travel trailers and fifth wheels they were given as temporary housing following the devastating 2005 storms."

A federal judge in September is expected to hold a fairness hearing on the proposed settlement.

Tribal leaders across the country should pay attention to the legal wranglings. Even though these lawsuits pertain to FEMA travel trailers, they could also affect the mobile homes that tribes across the country are receiving. I"ll address those concern in another column.

Delvin Cree is a columnist/writer for The Tribal Independent, an alternative on-line news source for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Cree is also a contributor to the tribe's newspaper The Turtle Mountain Times and Indianz.com, a national news source for American Indians.

More from Delvin Cree:
Delvin Cree: Rodney King and injustice against American Indians (6/22)
Delvin Cree: Turtle Mountain Band on the hook for a big loan (05/14)
Delvin Cree: Powwows an important part of tribal culture (4/20)
Delvin Cree: Explore energy development in Indian Country (03/23)
Delvin Cree: Treaties and the debate over 'Fighting Sioux' (2/24)
Delvin Cree: Predatory lending a cash cow in Indian Country (2/17)
Delvin Cree: Favoritism in Turtle Mountain tribal employment (2/3)

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