NEW ORLEANS - The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked a federal judge yesterday for immunity from lawsuits over potentially dangerous fumes in government-issued trailers that have housed tens of thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims.
Lawyers for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita accuse FEMA of negligence for sheltering them in trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde, a preservative used in construction materials that can cause health problems.
But a government lawyer told US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt that the FEMA's decisions in responding to a disaster, including its use of travel trailers after Katrina, are legally protected from "judicial second-guessing."
"It is what the legislative branch is supposed to second guess, and they are doing that," Department of Justice attorney Henry Miller said, referring to a series of congressional hearings on formaldehyde concerns.
Plaintiffs lawyer Gerald Meunier said FEMA can be held liable for providing hurricane victims with trailers that didn't meet federal safety standards and weren't designed to be long-term housing.
"Some of these people are still living in these trailers almost three years later," Meunier said.
Engelhardt took FEMA's request for immunity under advisement.
The judge is presiding over several consolidated cases filed against the federal government and the companies that supplied FEMA with tens of thousands of trailers after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, and Rita struck about a month later.
The lawsuits accuse trailer makers of providing FEMA with shoddily built units in a rush to meet the agency's demand for emergency housing. Plaintiffs also say FEMA ignored concerns about formaldehyde levels in trailers for months after Katrina.