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Obama’s homeland chief to tackle disaster housing

As homeland security head, Janet Napolitano wants to establish a long-term plan for housing disaster victims, said a senator who spoke with the Arizona governor.

Such housing is an important issue for Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat whose state was battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Landrieu said Wednesday she spoke with Napolitano for 15 minutes by telephone last Friday and was pleased to hear that President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee also backs a strong housing plan.

The 2005 hurricane season highlighted the federal government’s inability to find appropriate housing solutions for people driven from their homes for more than just a few months.

A draft plan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in July left it largely to the next administration to figure out how to avoid Katrina-like problems, which including sending disaster victims to toxic trailers. Landrieu said the draft was a “strategy without a plan.”

In their conversation, Napolitano said “she was concerned about the lack of a comprehensive housing strategy for survivors of catastrophic disasters,” Landrieu said. She heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on disaster recovery that was created after Katrina.

Napolitano also told Landrieu she would seek suggestions on how the Homeland Security Department could better work with the Housing and Urban Development Department on the issue.

Katrina, which displaced 1 million people, sent thousands to trailers that later were found to have high levels of formaldehyde — a preservative commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. Residents of FEMA-issued trailers reported frequent headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments.

According to the draft strategy Napolitano probably will inherit if she is confirmed by the Senate, the government may house disaster victims in trailers only as a last resort, despite promises never to use them again. Only the head of FEMA can approve the use of such trailers, and they would have to meet the agency’s standard for low formaldehyde levels. Also, disaster victims could stay in the trailers for only six months.