Rep. Thompson: PR priority after Katrina

The Bush administration was more concerned with getting good publicity from the media than with protecting the health of people affected by Hurricane Katrina, said the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee on Friday.

Rep. Bennie Thompson’s (D-Miss.) comments come in the wake of a report released this week by the Inspector General (IG) of the Homeland Security Department that faults the Bush administration for not moving families out of government-issued housing trailers with high levels of formaldehyde sooner.

“The Bush administration’s delayed action on testing these trailers is absolutely unacceptable,” said Thompson. “Clearly, the old FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was more worried about media relations than they were about the health of the families they are charged with serving.”

Officials announced in early 2008 that nearly one-third of the trailers provided to the hurricane victims, two years prior, had significant formaldehyde problems. By allowing so much time to pass, the report states, the people in the trailers could experience health concerns.

“Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, in our opinion, did not take sufficiently prompt and effective action to determine the extent of the formaldehyde problem in the emergency housing units once they were aware that such a problem might exist,” the report states.

“FEMA did not display a degree of urgency in reacting to the reported formaldehyde problem, a problem that could pose a significant health risk to people who were relying on FEMA’s programs.”

Thompson called on President Obama to provide those people affected by the high levels of formaldehyde with the healthcare they need to get better.

“This government must now ensure that we help those who may suffer adverse health consequences because of government negligence,” he said.

One of the reasons why it took so long to assess the high levels of formaldehyde is because FEMA took an entire year to determine that levels were best reduced by increasing ventilation in the unoccupied travel trailers – information that was widely known before the study began.

The IG report recommended that FEMA design better policies to identify and correct similar health safety issues “in a timely manner” and that the agency obtain medical advice, testing, and analysis assistance for such health safety issues through established agreements.