FEMA Works To Avoid Formaldehyde In New Units

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One model of temporary housing being tested at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Maryland i

One model of temporary housing being tested at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Maryland. Brian Naylor/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Naylor/NPR
One model of temporary housing being tested at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Maryland

One model of temporary housing being tested at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Maryland.

Brian Naylor/NPR
A view of the housing unit's interior. i

A view of the housing unit's interior. Brian Naylor/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Naylor/NPR
A view of the housing unit's interior.

A view of the housing unit's interior.

Brian Naylor/NPR

The Federal Emergency Management Agency this week unveiled a half-dozen models of temporary housing designed to provide shelter for people displaced by natural disasters. The six models are still undergoing testing, but FEMA officials say they mark another step away from the agency's post-Katrina stumbles.

One key change: These new housing units have been built with as little formaldehyde as possible, following complaints about the trailers that FEMA provided to thousands who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Many who moved in complained of headaches and other ailments, and it was discovered the trailers were produced with high levels of formaldehyde, which permeated the inside air.

The six new models sit on a patch of ground at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Maryland. A couple could pass for small houses; others scream RV. Jack Schuback, the FEMA official in charge of the testing program, says the diversity among the units is needed to deal with different conditions across the country.

"We'd like to have a unit that's adaptable to an extremely cold part of the country, like Minot, N.D., and then if we have hurricanes down in the Gulf, where it's hot and humid, we want units that perform well with the ventilation and air conditioning, and are resistant to a coastal-type climate."

Matt Riley of Mississippi-based Lexington Homes shows off the coziest unit of the bunch. It's got a little peaked roof and a small but nonetheless real porch.

Riley describes it as "like a shotgun fishing cottage. Driving down the beach, if you saw this thing, you would not realize that it was built in a factory. You would think it'd been there all along."

Inside, a common room serves as kitchen, dining and living area. And Riley points out one other key component of this house: "We've got fiberglass insulation — formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation — throughout."

Over the next six months or so, the first responders attending the training center will be staying in the houses. Schumack says FEMA will be monitoring formaldehyde levels.

In the meantime, he's keeping his fingers crossed that there won't be another Katrina-sized storm this hurricane season.

"If there's a large number of people displaced, and there's a large amount of damage, conducting a disaster housing operation will take some time, there's no doubt about that," he says.

But, he quickly adds, for smaller disasters, FEMA is in pretty good shape. Some 4,000 trailers and mobile homes are still being used to house residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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