Over two years ago I addressed some health issues surrounding FEMA trailers my tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was receiving.
These trailers have come in a form of travel trailers and mobile units. We received hundreds of them. It wasn't long after they arrived that our reservation was blanketed with white structures that came to be 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 the time length of three tribal administrations—both current and previous councils. Despite concerns, it was surprising (to me) to see these trailers arrive on the reservation a few years back, when housing shortages seemed to have heightened and there was a need for more housing. In a sense, these units were to become the quick fix to our housing crisis. But these trailers, when used in the Gulf region after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, had high levels of formaldehyde, which made them a high risk to a person's health.
Tribal leaders were alerted that these trailers were to be used for recreational purposes only, not for housing. They were abandoned and not maintained. Many sat for several years in hot and humid conditions. In some of these 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 some of the mold problems.
I went with my brother-in-law and his father to Purvis, Mississippi in the summer of 2008 to retrieve one of these travel trailers during the hot summer weather. While there, I observed many trailers with water damage and mold. The stench made it difficult to breathe, and my eyes and throat burned.
After we got it back to North Dakota, we removed some of the flooring —which looked very new and in good shape—to reveal mold. I sent pictures to Washington of the mold, which, in addition to the formaldehyde, was concerning. That information was sent to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, who addressed the situation.
The Tribe eventually stopped receiving these travel-style trailers. In addition to my request for an investigation into the potential health problems, I added further information that these same trailers were heading to the state's oil patch.
In one of my letters, I mentioned that formaldehyde toxins can cause irritated eyes, breathing problems, headaches, asthma attacks, coughing, congestive heart disease, nausea, depression, impaired memory, skin rashes, respiratory problems and cancer. This information came in a report provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And skin rashes created by formaldehyde could have an devastating affect on our younger and older diabetic tribal members.
During the time period our Tribe was requesting these FEMA campers and mobile homes, tribal officials used our homeless population information to acquire these trailers. It was obvious most of these trailers are not going to the poor homeless population. Today a great number of them sit in people's yards who have nice homes and don't fit the category of being part of the homeless population. Some tribal employees have received the travel trailers. It was stated by some tribal leaders that the homeless could use the trailers for recreational purposes and the mobile homes for temporary housing—which made sense.
In a recent Associated Press article regarding FEMA trailers, the Middletown 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 current legal wranglings taking place regarding FEMA trailers. Even though these lawsuits pertain to FEMA travel trailers, there should also be concern over the mobile homes that tribes across the country are receiving.
Delvin Cree is a columnist for the Tribal Independent, an alternative news source for the Turtle Mountain reservation. He is also a contributor to the Tribe's newspaper, The Turtle Mountain Times, as well as a daily contributor to Indianz.com and Indian Country Today Media Network.