FEMA trailers are small pox blankets
Being a native of New Orleans, I am constantly appalled, yet not surprised by FEMA's actions with regard to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. However, the current revelation of FEMA's complete botching of the recovery effort amazes me. According to the Washington Post, "The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers." In short, for a year and a half FEMA has allowed people to live in and continued distributing what amounts to little boxes of contaminated air or cesspools of pollution in a city that is unable to provide basic health care should people experience ramifications from such willful ignorance.
It occurred to me that this kind of disgusting behavior, this amount of disregard for basic well being, can only exist when people see themselves as so separate from another group of people that they are able to treat them poorly. In an effort to combat this chasm, let me walk you through what it is actually like to discover this news.
Imagine going to your home town and seeing a field that you knew as a local high school football field and track arena swamped with small white boxy trailers and cars and trash and people milling about. Imagine seeing the white boxes in front of houses, next door to your mother's house, in the middle of what now looks like a large field that you once knew as a neighborhood of houses and streets and restaurants and stores. Imagine driving around town to go to your favorite restaurant and seeing another white box where the restaurant used to be. Imagine the way you would bargain with your fear and grief...at least people are coming home...at least there is a place for them to go...to be safe...to sleep...even if it does resemble something out of communist Russia. Imagine that after several return trips to your home town the sight of the trailers would be a foreboding sign of the LONG recovery but still your reasoning...a place to sleep...to recover...to rebuild. Then imagine that you find out that the trailers are poisoned, that the people who gave them out knew they were contaminated shortly after distribution and continued giving them out, selling them, and allowing people to live in them. Imagine your shock and horror at the very idea that a government agency would allow your neighbors, your friends, people who you know, but for the grace of god, could have been you, experiencing breathing problems and respiratory infections with no means to obtain health care. Imagine your shock and horror, your growing distrust of government matched only by your anger. Imagine.
The way FEMA treated the victims of Hurricane Katrina is symptomatic of a larger problem. Just like America would have NEVER let white people stand on their roofs for days and beg for help, FEMA would not have treated people of a different social, economic, race, and class status with the same deplorable attitude and actions as they do with New Orleanians. Never.
So to FEMA I say, you can keep your small-pox-blanket-of-a-trailer away from the city of New Orleans and get moving on some real housing solutions [pdf] for a population that is long over due some real government aid. Furthermore, the people who have experienced health problems in connection with this should be given FREE (yes free) health care in regard to these issues, for however long it takes them to recover completely. There should be oversight from an outside agency to see that these things are accomplished with all due speed. Given these reparations FEMA would still not be able to save face, but it would be a step in the right direction for the first time in the relationship between New Orleans and FEMA.