WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal officials and a Texas housing department director were grilled during a congressional hearing Tuesday about the large number of Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims still living in trailers more than two years after the storms hit the Gulf Coast.
Concern about long stays by hurricane victims in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has intensified after trailer residents have complained of health problems believed related to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a common preservative found in building materials in manufactured homes.
It can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Congressional Democrats investigating the formaldehyde issue accused FEMA of manipulating scientific research to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in its trailers.
The lawmakers said the formaldehyde issue gives more urgency to the need to providing housing for hurricane victims.
Texas has been building and restoring housing for victims, rather than cutting checks to be used for housing as Louisiana and Mississippi have done. The state has said it chose this route to avoid fraud and abuse and assure the money went to qualified residents.
But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, complained that the state was moving too slowly and questioned why FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have not used their authority to push the states along.
"We gave the governor of Mississippi, the governor of Louisiana and the governor of Texas the latitude to respond to this disaster. That was our reform process in order to move these dollars quickly, and frankly it's failed because people are still in trailers," Jackson Lee said.
Texas got $74.5 million in federal money for rebuilding in May 2006 and another $428.6 million in October 2006.
Michael Gerber, executive director of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, told the House Homeland Security Committee that ensuring residents qualify has been challenging. Many of those needing help are "the poorest of the poor" who are requiring intense casework that requires the state to work with faith based and local organizations to reach people.
Environmental, historic preservation and flood plain laws also have slowed some of the construction, he said.
"We have 24 different laws and sets of regulations that we have checklists on that you have to go through because if you don't go through that checklist, HUD doesn't allow you to draw down those funds," Gerber said. "As we've worked on the program, I really do think we've turned the corner."
By Labor Day, the state should have distributed all of the $74.5 million. He said $40.3 million of that money will rebuild or replace 550 homes.
Gerber met with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, before the hearing. Cornyn had urged Gerber last November to speed up the home rebuilding. Cornyn seemed pleased with the department's progress since then.
"Dozens of new homes are under construction and nearly all eligible homeowners under the program have been qualified for assistance," he said in a statement. "The progress I heard in today's briefing with (Gerber) is encouraging, but I will continue to monitor the program closely and pressing when necessary to make sure all Texas needs are met."
Jackson Lee criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for not attending the hearing.
"The governor of Texas was invited. He should have been here," Jackson Lee said.
Perry was in Washington for meetings with the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs.
"We were asked, but we informed them then (two weeks ago) the governor had a full schedule and commitments and could not attend," Perry spokesman Robert Black said. "He had a full schedule of RGA commitments today."
On the Net: House Homeland Security Committee: http://homeland.house.gov/