Welcome to America

Where tonight in D.C. I rode past an informal homeless tent city set up under the highway directly in the shadow of H.U.D. 

Where at the Washington Nationals baseball game I watched an adult man wrestle a flying bat from the hands of a bunch of 10 year olds, who looked not a little bewildered and crestfallen while he pumped the bat in the air in victory. 

I had been shooting for a funny, light post – the M.A.S. did leave the game tonight with a baseball discarded by the Rockies’ batboy that the 16 year old girl beside him grabbed and then casually handed to him because she alread had one.(So don’t buy his story that he hurled himself backwards over three rows in order to catch the foul ball with one hand). And the Nats came from behind to win in the 10th and all in all it was a great night.

But then I see this: that essentially FEMA has knowingly exposed 120,000 families to cancer-causing formaldehyde rather than conduct environmental testing on their trailers, as that would indicate their “ownership” of the problem:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency’s lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation.

There are still 66,000 families living in trailers.  Because there has been no systematic testing, we have no idea of how many of them are at risk.  Now that the gig is up, David Paulison, the head of FEMA, even admits that there may be mutiple environmental issues in trailers – mold or mildew, for instance – in addition to formaldehyde exposure.

There’s no shortage of outcry:

But other lawmakers charged that FEMA’s response augurs poorly for the nation’s emergency preparedness. “I haven’t seen this level of government incompetence outside of the nation of China. . . . And they executed an official in China for not having done their job,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), alleging parallels in lax consumer regulations and an uncaring government.


“We have lost a great deal through our dealings with FEMA,” said Paul Stewart, a former Army officer living in a trailer with his wife in Mississippi, “not the least of which is our faith in government.”

Jesus, maybe we should get that guy a room at Walter Reed for his recovery.

Last week, when I joined the vociferous masses at Pandagon with some patient explanation of how they could better channel their energies towards Gulf Coast recovery, my ability to be rational and clear in the face of crisis or complexity came shining through.  But honestly, F*** That.  Seriously????  We not only sanction warehousing the very poor, the elderly, the disabled, and kids in isolated, risky trailer parks but then also willingly ignore repeated warnings of cancer exposure, disease and death?  Were we hoping they’d all drop dead so we could just put the trailers back in storage for the next mass creation of a refugee population due to our laziness and selfishness that prevents us from investing in an infrastructure that will distribute risk more equitably across entire populations? 

I know these stories of deliberate, institutional cover-ups are endless.  I remember getting choked up when chastising those in my Biz school ethics class who confessed they’d also try to do nothing were they the executives who tried to bury women’s risks and deaths caused by the Dalkon Shield I.U.D. in the 1970s.  But now I work with Gulf Coast survivors and activists.  And one reason I don’t live there full time is because it is too god damn depressing.  I CAN’T BELIEVE THE PLOT OF OUR GOVERNMENT’S CRUELTY CONTINUES TO THICKEN.

The NY Times thinks the Presidential candidates should hold their debates in New Orleans, given its our favorite poster child for government neglect and disinvestment, and domestic woes more generally (sorry Detroit, Gary, Camden and Newark).  That’s the least we can do.  Seriously, while I hope the Bush Administration goes down in history at least as one of the most morally bankrupt we’ve ever had to suffer through, we need to pursue real, systemic change far beyond electing the latest figurehead for our horribly inequitable world.  I rarely urge readers to take action, but lately I’ve been fantasizing about winning the lottery so I could buy cars for all the evacuees that could drive, and invest in affordable housing, and set up education trust funds for my paternal cousins, and on and on, while I’m at a friggin’ baseball game.  This is what it’s come to – philanthropy fantasies. 

Again, please contact your congressperson and tell them you want to see action (H.R. 1227 and S. 1668 – the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Acts) on bringing people home in the Gulf Coast, by recognizing their right of return, and by building affordable housing (and not substituting housing vouchers), especially for the very-low income, elderly, disabled and homeless.  Please tell them you want to see Charity Hospital re-opened in New Orleans ASAP, so the indigent can receive much needed medical care.  Pay attention to the presidential candidates for their plans for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, for building additional affordable housing for the nation, for alleviating the economic insecurity of the more than 40M people living near or in poverty (officially, anyway), and for expanding health insurance coverage, so we’re not all paying for the high and excessive costs of emergency room care for the uninsured. 

But advocating for legislation is actually the easy part. Pay attention to, CONFRONT, racial and economic segregation and discrimination.  We don’t live together, we don’t go to school together, and we hardly talk to one another anymore.  We live in a racially and economically polarized and unequal world.  If you look around, it’s likely you’ll just see more of the same.

(Coming to you live from the Fairfax Cty suburbs, where I’m too pissed to include links right now.  I’ll get to those later.) 


1 Response to “Welcome to America”

  1. July 20, 2007 at 6:24 am

    Boy are you gonna be mad at me when I finish my post on John Edwards and the politics of poverty. 😉

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