Fumes Chase Family Out of FEMA Trailers

Lindsay Huckabee with two of her sons i

Lindsay Huckabee and her sons, Steven and Michael, get a chance to play and relax on four acres the family bought north of Gulfport, Miss. They had hoped to put a Katrina cottage on the land, but county officials stopped them. Now they're trying to rent some land in a nearby trailer park. Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR
Lindsay Huckabee with two of her sons

Lindsay Huckabee and her sons, Steven and Michael, get a chance to play and relax on four acres the family bought north of Gulfport, Miss. They had hoped to put a Katrina cottage on the land, but county officials stopped them. Now they're trying to rent some land in a nearby trailer park.

Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR

From Hurricane to Motel

  • August 2005 — Hurricane Katrina hits and destroys the Huckabees' apartment in Pass Christian, Miss. They ride out the storm with family in Kiln, Miss.

  • October 2005 — FEMA gives them a small travel trailer with a broken heater and air conditioner. "All we did was sleep in [the] travel trailer, never tried to cook or eat, as it was too small," says Steve Huckabee.

  • December 2005 — FEMA provides the Huckabees with a Fleetwood mobile home.

  • September/October 2006 — The Huckabees tell FEMA officials there is black mold in the trailer, but, they say, FEMA never addresses it.

  • April 2007 — The Huckabees report to FEMA that test results show formaldehyde levels of 0.18 parts per million in their trailer. The recommended limit is 0.10 ppm.

  • June 2007 — FEMA replaces the Fleetwood mobile home with a new Destiny mobile home. Formaldehyde test results for that mobile home: 0.108.

  • July 2007 — Lindsay Huckabee testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

  • March 2008 — The Huckabees move out of their third mobile home and into a motel in Diamondhead, Miss.

  • April 2008 — Lindsay Huckabee testifies before the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Two of the Huckabee children in the motel. i

Vicki Huckabee, 13, and brother Steven, 4, munch on pork and green beans after soccer practice. There is little space and no dining table, so most of the time the kids sit on the floor and eat out of large tins. FEMA has hired a caterer to deliver meals to some displaced families. Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR
Two of the Huckabee children in the motel.

Vicki Huckabee, 13, and brother Steven, 4, munch on pork and green beans after soccer practice. There is little space and no dining table, so most of the time the kids sit on the floor and eat out of large tins. FEMA has hired a caterer to deliver meals to some displaced families.

Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR
Steve Huckabee and his son i

Steve Huckabee and his youngest child, 2-year-old Michael, rest on the king-sized bed in one of the rooms. Michael has a tough time getting to sleep, but after 11 p.m., both of them nod off due to sheer exhaustion. Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR
Steve Huckabee and his son

Steve Huckabee and his youngest child, 2-year-old Michael, rest on the king-sized bed in one of the rooms. Michael has a tough time getting to sleep, but after 11 p.m., both of them nod off due to sheer exhaustion.

Photo by Kathy Lohr/NPR

Hurricane Katrina obliterated thousands of homes along the Gulf Coast, including the apartment complex in Pass Christian, Miss., where Steve and Lindsay Huckabee and their five children lived.

After moving into and out of three Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, they are now living in a motel in Diamondhead, Miss.

Since the storm hit, the Huckabee children have been treated for various ailments including asthma, nose bleeds and respiratory infections. Two of the kids have been hospitalized three times each.

The Huckabees blame formaldehyde fumes in two of the three FEMA trailers, but there's no scientific proof that the carcinogenic embalming chemical — used in making furniture and glue, including the carpet and cabinets in FEMA trailers — made them sick.

Last February, officials from FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced results of a formaldehyde study on occupied trailers. Officials said the levels were on average five times higher than what people in modern homes are exposed to and, in some cases, 40 times higher. They said families should move out by the summer, when warmer temperatures can increase toxic levels.

"I feel like essentially we were lab rats," Lindsay Huckabee says. "We were put in this situation. We were exposed to this and seeing as this large group of scientists knew about it, it seems like they should have at least been doing studies to find out what the effects were."

FEMA says there are still some 24,000 trailers in use and about 6,700 of them are in Mississippi. Many of the displaced residents who lived in the trailers have tried to find other housing, but rents have doubled and there's not much to choose from. In March, after moving twice to escape the fumes in their trailers, the Huckabees moved into the motel in Diamondhead.

Cramped Quarters

The two dark, cramped motel rooms are covered with the Huckabees' belongings. Clothes are in baskets and scattered on the floor. Papers are piled high in a plastic tub. A few leftover pudding cups are stacked in a small box. There are two beds in one room and a king-sized bed in the other.

"Basically, we have two adjoining rooms and that's pretty much about it," says Lindsay Huckabee. "There's no real closet. There's no refrigerator, no microwave, no kitchen area or kitchenette. There's really no sitting room or a table to eat at. You know, usually we're sitting around on beds."

On a recent day, she and her youngest children — 2-year-old Michael and 4-year-old Steven — take their daily jaunt to the motel lobby. Just outside, they pick up that night's supper: pork, something that passes for potatoes and overdone green beans.

FEMA pays for the motel and for caterers to deliver meals to families that don't have access to kitchens and can't afford to eat three meals a day at a restaurant.

"We try to make the best of what we've got," Lindsay Huckabee says. "Try to look at it, you know, positively, but it's not always easy."

She says it's frustrating that people outside the area don't realize how hard families are working to get back on their feet. She waitresses at Waffle House and her husband does surveillance at a local casino.

"It's not just the people who are on welfare and getting food stamps ... it touches every class of person," she says. "It's not that easy. It's not limited to just the super poor people who can't find a place to live. It's everybody, pretty much."

Developers are rebuilding high-dollar homes and condos, but Huckabee says average Mississippi residents can't afford to live in them.

Chaos and Aggravation

By the time Steve Huckabee gets back to the motel, it's after 8 p.m. and the food Lindsay picked up earlier in the lobby has been sitting out for hours. So he brings back burgers, salads and chicken nuggets from the dollar menu at a fast-food restaurant.

After the late dinner, it's time to do laundry. Steve says he often stays up until 1 a.m. because there's only a single washer and dryer for the entire motel, and they have to wash clothes for five kids.

"Cramped and chaotic is probably a pretty good description of it, just everybody on top of each other," he says. "No one has their own space and you know that gets kind of aggravating. Everybody gets on everybody else's nerves and it's just ... mostly it's cramped."

But since the family moved out of its third FEMA trailer, Lindsay and Steve Huckabee say one thing is better: their health. The kids still get colds, but the Huckabees say the headaches, sinus congestion and allergy symptoms have improved.

Meanwhile, FEMA says they have until June 5 to move out of the motel.

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