FEMA Story Fallout

"Are FEMA Trailers Making Residents Sick?" was the CBS exclusive two months ago.

Fast forward to last night's story on the "Evening News" "House Probes FEMA Cover-up"

And this morning's Washington Post displayed the headline: "FEMA Knew Of Toxic Gas In Trailers."

In a story that feels more than a little like "Erin Brockovich," CBS' investigative team followed some medical anecdotes circulating around the FEMA trailer camps, consulted a number of experts and looked into potential health concerns to get to the bottom of a troubling story.

As reported in that first story on May 16:

Today the government says 86,000 families are still living in those white FEMA travel trailers across the Gulf — more and more waking up with a host of health problems — tied, medical experts believe, to the place they still call home.

When Hurricane Katrina tore apart homes here in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Angela Orcutt and her young son Nicky found shelter in a FEMA trailer meant for weekend trips.

That trip has now lasted 21 months — something these trailers were not built for. Time that has turned them into human Petri dishes — unregulated experiments on the health of thousands still stuck inside.

And this story continued to develop through yesterday's Capitol Hill hearings, where it was made public that FEMA's lawyers had discouraged research that could have determined whether formaldehyde levels in the government-supplied trailers were putting residents' health at risk. Their reason, according to internal documents? Because if they discovered health risks, they'd have to act. As one e-mail put it: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

At yesterday's House hearing, both parties found something to agree on: Outrage. One of the most dramatic moments was when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman accused FEMA of 'premeditated ignorance.' Also from the Post's reporting:

[R]evelation of [FEMA]'s earlier posture -- in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress -- attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA's indifference to storm victims and said the situation was "sickening." He said the documents "expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance" and added that "senior officials in Washington didn't want to know what they already knew, because they didn't want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and "mischaracterized the scope and purpose" of its own actions. "FEMA's reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency's litigation position," Davis said. "FEMA's primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety."

So what's it feel like to be a part of this story? I was able to catch up with CBS Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian this morning, along with Michael Rey – a producer with the investigative unit responsible for the story.

"To me, yesterday's hearing wasn't a surprise," said Keteyian. "It was clear to us in the spring that there was a complete disconnect between FEMA in Washington, DC and the reality of the Gulf Coast. What is happening in those trailer parks remains a national disgrace. Yes, lawyers should be concerned about liability, but not the head of the agency. When you see him facing a withering cross-examination, you can't help but think it's about time."

Michael Rey, who was responsible for a lot of the footage seen on the "Evening News," talked about an on-site interview with one of the FEMA trailer residents, Earl Shorty. "I was in his trailer for about thirty or forty minutes, and my eyes burned for two hours after the visit. And I'm not what you could call 'chemically sensitive,' either."

Apparently, Shorty had seen the initial segment back in May and called Rey to tell him that his wife was ailing. "He called and put his wife on the phone. She was trying to talk and was coughing constantly. I suggested to Early that he get the trailer tested… Then, when we did the follow-up story, we were able to incorporate him into the piece. One story leads to another, frequently." Shorty was featured in last night's piece:

Earl says his wife didn't smoke and that every time she left the trailer the coughing would stop. Eventually, she became too weak to go out. On July 2, she took her last breath at a local hospital.

"She was just looking at me and she said, 'Babe, I'm scared,'" said Shorty. "That's the last thing I remember her telling me, that she was scared."

Says Rey of the week's events and the impact his work has had. "I always feel pretty good about a story like this for two hours after it goes out. But then the next morning, it's back to work."