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Buyer Beware 

Wanda Phillips has been hit by the full force of "Hurricane FEMA." The Purvis, Miss., woman and her husband, Melvin, live across the street from an open field that was rented to FEMA to become a major staging and storage area for FEMA travel trailers. "Now that it's August, I can stand on my porch and smell chemicals coming across the street," she says. "The trailers are just wall to wall to wall. I believe there are over 7,000 camper trailers and trailer offices across from our house."

Phillips has complained about the fumes coming from the Purvis FEMA site since it was set up shortly after Hurricane Katrina. She's called the police about trailers parked on her yard and campers blocking her driveway. She's notified the health department when nine portable bathrooms were placed directly across from her front door. "I don't understand how they could come into a residential area and set this thing up," she says. To this day, the Purvis FEMA staging area remains, formaldehyde wafting across the Phillips yard.

To get away from "the FEMA turmoil across the street," Phillips and her husband decided to buy one of the campers going up for auction in the FEMA staging area. Based on figures Paulison included in his directive, it appears that more than 14,000 campers were sold in this manner before sales were stopped at the end of July. The Phillipses paid $5,500 for the camper and spent nearly $600 on repairs, only to find, as Phillips wrote in an email, "I may have taken my problem with me in my attempt to escape."

When Phillips stays in her camper, her lungs become congested and her eyes and nose irritated; she has headaches and coughs for weeks, even after she returns home. Her daughter and young granddaughter suffer similar health problems when they are inside the trailer. After reading about symptoms associated with formaldehyde in the travel trailers, Phillips became concerned.

She contacted FEMA to discuss the symptoms and was told the camper had been sold on an "as is" basis. FEMA suggested she phone the people who sold her the trailer -- another federal agency, the U.S. General Services Administration. GSA sells surplus government goods at auction. Phillips called and emailed GSA asking for information about formaldehyde and how to test the trailer, and expressing her concerns. She received a form response about how to bid in GSA auctions. She persisted, writing emails and phoning GSA. Finally, GSA referred her to FEMA, and gave her numbers for the public relations staff.

She called those numbers, spoke to someone in the press office, and was referred back to GSA. GSA auctions, in turn, referred her back to FEMA. Around and around she went. A public information officer told Phillips in early August that FEMA did not have scientists or medical experts, and the issue of formaldehyde overexposure had been turned over to professionals.

"I am asking you to tell me what I can do to make sure that my health is not damaged, or being damaged, and that I will not have long-term effects by this possible over-exposure to formaldehyde," she wrote to James McIntyre, a FEMA public information officer. She had received no response as of last week.

She also wrote again and again to GSA. "For the same reasons that I would not expect toxins to be in Girl Scout Cookies that I buy every year," Phillips wrote, "I would not expect that I would purchase something from the government that was toxic." She'd heard FEMA planned to buy back the trailers from trailer residents who purchased them. She wanted a refund, too, or at least a safer camper. "GSA has many campers across the road from my house," Phillips wrote. "Have any of the older campers gassed out so that they now have acceptable levels?"

GSA responded:

"Dear Customer,

Questions regarding possible formaldehyde issues with travel trailers and mobile homes are to be addressed to FEMA Public Affairs Officials below." The agency gave her the same names and numbers: James McIntyre and Aaron Walker.

"I have been given these numbers before," she wrote to the GSA auctions help staff. ... Today when I called these numbers, nobody answers."

She received an automatic "out of office" response from the woman she'd been corresponding with at GSA, telling Phillips that she was on vacation.

For its part, FEMA is providing no details on how the government might reimburse unhappy customers who purchased old FEMA trailers, only to find they can't use them because of formaldehyde.

FEMA spokesperson Alexandra Kirin says that the agency "continues to work with GSA on these issues." But Kirin is cryptic about what that means: "Discussions are ongoing and no announcement has been made at this time." -- Spake

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