Fumes Chase Family Out of FEMA Trailers A Mississippi family moved to three different FEMA trailers before finally abandoning them altogether for a cramped motel room. The Huckabees say formaldehyde fumes in the trailers made their children sick.
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Fumes Chase Family Out of FEMA Trailers

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Fumes Chase Family Out of FEMA Trailers

Fumes Chase Family Out of FEMA Trailers

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Hurricane season officially begins on Sunday, and for some survivors of Hurricane Katrina, it's a bitter reminder of how long they've been living in temporary housing - coming up on three years. Starting next month, people who have been living in subsidized apartments and trailers will have to start paying for their own housing again - people like Steve Huckabee and his family, who live in a motel in Diamondhead, Mississippi. They had been living in a FEMA trailer, but they got out after their kids had lots of health problems. NPR's Kathy Lohr tells their story.

KATHY LOHR: 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-size bed in the other.

Ms. LINDSAY HUCKABEE: Basically, we have two adjoining rooms, and that's pretty much about it.

LOHR: Lindsay Huckabee and her family moved from their FEMA trailer in March into another tight space that's not much like home.

Ms. HUCKABEE: There's no real closets. There's no refrigerator, no microwave, no kitchen area or kitchenette. There's really no sitting room or, you know, a table to eat at. You know, usually, we're sitting around on beds talking, 'cause there's not really any type of living room or anything.

LOHR: Huckabee and her youngest children, two-year old Michael and four-year old Steven, take their daily jaunt to the motel lobby. Just outside, they pick up tonight's supper.

Ms. HUCKABEE: What are we having tonight?

Ms. HUCKABEE: I think it's pork, I didn't look. ...I think it's pork.

LOHR: In fact, it is pork, something that passes for potatoes, and overdone green beans. FEMA pays for this motel and for these caterers to deliver meals to families that don't have access to kitchens because most can't afford to eat three meals a day at a restaurant.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Thank you, ma'am. I'll see you in the morning. All righty.

(Soundbite of baby laughing)

LOHR: Inside her room, Lindsay says the food is much like what you'd find at a high school cafeteria, and often cold when they get it. Her husband Steve is still at soccer practice with their three girls.

Ms. HUCKABEE: We've tried to make the best of what we've got, try to look at it, you know, positively. But it's not always easy.


Ms. HUCKABEE: Are you playing with your car?


LOHR: All of Lindsay's kids have been sick since after the storm hit. Most have been treated for asthma and have had nosebleeds and respiratory infections. Two kids have been hospitalized three times each. Huckabee blames formaldehyde fumes in the FEMA trailers they've lived in since Katrina. But it's not clear whether formaldehyde made the kids sick. There's no scientific proof. We do know that formaldehyde is an embalming chemical. It's used in making furniture and glue, including the carpet and cabinets in FEMA trailers. It is a known carcinogen. In April, Lindsay Huckabee traveled to Washington to testify before the Congressional Committee on Science and Technology.

Ms. HUCKABEE: I feel like, essentially, we were lab rats. 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 affects were.

LOHR: 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 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 summer, when warmer temperatures can increase toxic levels. FEMA says there are still some 24,000 trailers in use. About 6,700 are in Mississippi. Many, including the Huckabees, have tried to find other housing, but rents have doubled, and there's not much to choose from.

(Soundbite of car engine)

Ms. HUCKABEE: And we're going to drive by one of the apartments that was willing to rent month to month, which is what we need to rent something, and it was also within our price range. I think these were about $850 a month.

(Soundbite of car engine)

LOHR: But Lindsay Huckabee found the neighborhood just too scary. The shabby complex has several single-story brick buildings. A large sign out front reads no loitering, no alcohol, and no loud music. Other apartments had higher rents and larger fees. One manager even told Lindsay they couldn't move in because the family was too big for a two-bedroom unit. She says it's frustrating that people outside the area don't realize how hard families are working to move on. She is a waitress at Waffle House, and her husband works in surveillance at a local casino.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Steve and I both work 40-hour weeks. We've got five kids, and it's not just the people who are on welfare and getting food stamps. I mean, it touches every class of person. It's not that easy. It's not limited to just the super poor people that can't find a place to live. It's - I mean, it's everybody, pretty much.

LOHR: Huckabee says developers are rebuilding high dollar homes and condos here, but she says average Mississippi residents can't afford to live in them. By the time Steve Huckabee gets back to the motel, it's after 8:00, and the food has been sitting out for hours. So he brings back burgers, salads and chicken nuggets from the dollar menu at a fast food joint.

Mr. STEVE HUCKABEE: I didn't get you any french fries, honey. I didn't get you french fries.

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

Mr. HUCKABEE: Cramped and chaotic. That's probably a pretty good description of it. It's just everybody on top of each other and 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.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Michael, you go night, night.

LOHR: Everyone's tired, but on this night, Michael is wide awake and unable to get comfortable, even on his parents' bed. He crawls on top of Steve and Lindsay. Steve closes his eyes and drifts off. Lindsay can't.

Ms. HUCKABEE: It's just really a lot of turmoil. I mean, not, you know, necessarily anything tragic, but it's just a lot of stress over and over again, and it just seems like nothing ever calms down.

LOHR: It's after 11:00 PM before the two-year old finally gets to sleep. Since the family moved out of its 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. Just north of Gulf Port, the family found four acres of land and hopes to get a Katrina cottage to put on it. Out here, Steve and Lindsay finally relax a bit. There's lots of wide open space, trees for climbing, and a place for their kids to romp around.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Yeah, you're not allowed to kill your sister.

LOHR: Eventually, the Huckabees would like to build a real home here, but they're fighting government red tape about whether they can put anything on this particular piece of land. Meanwhile, FEMA says they have until June 5th to move out of the motel.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

SMITH: You can see photos of the Huckabee family at npr.org. And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hear how formaldehyde is finding its way into lots of products you use every day and why some health experts are concerned.

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