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Senators liken drywall's effects to hurricane damage

MANATEE — Tainted Chinese drywall should be considered a hurricane that hits homes and businesses from the inside out, say senators from affected states, including Florida.

Toxic effects of the Chinese drywall have caused damage and reported health problems in residents in Manatee County and other areas. Unless the suspect drywall is replaced by the residents or builders, homeowners evacuate — just as they would in natural disasters.

So shouldn’t the federal government following states’ disaster declarations help the evacuees financially?

Four Democratic U.S. senators including Florida’s Bill Nelson believe so, and they asked the Small Business Administration on Tuesday to review its authority to offer aid.

A letter is the latest push to recover from “550 million pounds of drywall that have been imported from China,” with cases of the tainted product in homes in 21 states. The situation has become a scandal for China, and a lawyer in Nelson’s office late Tuesday said the situation has gotten China’s attention.

“There’s hard evidence China is serious about investigating this. A Chinese official was in Florida a month and half ago looking at the situation,” said Chris Day, Nelson’s legislative lawyer.

Senators from Louisiana and Virginia, whose Gulf and Atlantic coasts suffer from hurricanes, decided to pursue funding from the SBA either by extending disaster declarations from recent hurricanes or seeking new disaster declarations. Nelson joined the letter to SBA Administrator Karen Mills even though the most recent hurricane terror in the Sunshine State was in 2004 and 2005.

“To some extent we are,” Day said of Nelson’s interest. “To be honest, this would help in Louisiana a little more.”

The letter was a call for aid.

“Families from our states are, in many cases, watching their dream homes turn into nightmares,” the senators said. “As the federal government determines the full size and scope of this disaster, we believe it is important to marshal all appropriate federal resources that may assist these families.”

In Florida, there have been hundreds of complaints from homeowners to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, many of them in Manatee County. Locally, problems have been reported in Lakewood Ranch, Palmetto, Heritage Harbour, Myakka City, Parrish and Ellenton.

An analysis of export data shows that enough Chinese drywall was shipped to the United States during the home building boom to construct 60,000 homes from 2004 to 2006, about half of them in Florida, according to Bradenton Herald archives.

The senators asked the SBA to consider if funds could be used from previous disaster declarations such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or from the 2004 Florida hurricanes; or if the SBA could follow new declarations specifically for the drywall mess with funding “if it is demonstrated that certain numbers of businesses in a declared disaster area have suffered economic injury.”

Both the SBA and FEMA have authority under the Stafford Act to dedicate money to disaster relief. Previously, U.S. Sen. Henry Wexler and others have pursued funding from FEMA.

Also Tuesday, Nelson asked President Barack Obama to streamline federal assistance for Chinese drywall victims.

Nelson toured the Lakewood Ranch home of Kristin Culliton in April. Culliton was one of the first homeowners to report tainted drywall.

Neither she nor other local drywall victims were available for comment about the latest developments.

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