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FEMA rebuffs Florida on Chinese drywall

MANATEE — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rejected Florida’s request for help in assessing damage caused by corrosive Chinese drywall, a decision that the state might appeal.

In a reply letter sent late last week, a regional FEMA director said the agency could not get involved in the drywall saga because its impacts do not meet federal emergency or disaster criteria.

“Conditions experienced by individuals from a consumer product safety matter, such as the degradation of imported drywall, does not constitute an emergency or major disaster incident,” said the letter by Phil May, a FEMA regional administrator in Atlanta.

The letter was dated Friday, two days after the state’s interim emergency management director asked FEMA to help conduct a preliminary damage assessment. The assessment is required before any federal disaster aid can be made available.

Gov. Charlie Crist was “disappointed” by FEMA’s denial, a spokesman said Tuesday.

“We are reviewing options available to us and will continue to work with our federal partners and the Congressional delegation in seeking relief for Floridians,” spokesman Sterling Ivey wrote in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald.

Ivey did not release specifics, but Hillsborough County officials said they were told by a state emergency management official that appealing the denial is among the options under consideration. Based on that, county commissioners are poised to pass a resolution today urging Crist to appeal.

“It concerns me that they’ve turned a blind eye to this issue,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said of FEMA.

Another possibility: Asking President Barack Obama to declare a disaster.

Thousands of homeowners in Florida and elsewhere have complained the drywall emits foul-smelling sulfuric gases; corrodes air-conditioning coils, electrical wiring and other metal objects in their homes; and causes sore throats, watery and itchy eyes and other health problems. Most of the complaints center on Chinese-made drywall, but complaints have also been lodged against U.S. drywall.

Homeowners have filed roughly 3,000 complaints with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the lead federal agency investigating the Chinese product. They also have filed hundreds of lawsuits against homebuilders, drywall manufacturers, suppliers, installers and insurance companies; the first contested trial is now underway in New Orleans.

In his response letter, May said FEMA is “aware of the reports of health problems and significant property damage blamed on the use of imported drywall” and “understand(s) the difficulties experienced by homeowners potentially impacted by the problem drywall.” But it doesn’t rise to the level of a national disaster or emergency under federal law, he wrote.

That’s because Chinese drywall, unlike hurricanes, floods, gas leaks and other disasters, does not appear to pose an imminent danger to public health and safety, FEMA spokesman Kurt Pickering said.

Also in determining an emergency or disaster, “What’s reviewed very, very closely is whether it’s beyond the resources of the state and local governments,” he said. “It does sometimes come down to a judgment call on whether a state or area can recover without our help.”

May’s letter encouraged Florida officials to “continue working with the CPSC and its partner agencies to develop a solution for Florida’s citizens.” Florida homeowners and municipalities also “should avail themselves” of potential funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the letter said.

Supporters of FEMA’s denial said Florida’s request was off-base to begin with, as the drywall isn’t a natural disaster.

“Clearly it’s not FEMA’s responsibility,” said Veggo Larsen of Palmetto, who interacted with FEMA during his days as a city manager in Colorado.

He also called the state’s request “a false hope because there never was a chance.”

But others contend Chinese drywall is not much different from other man-made disasters that have received federal recovery aid, such as grain elevator explosions, dam and bridge failures, and gas leaks.

“FEMA just doesn’t get it,” said Mike Ryan, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents hundreds of homeowners with Chinese drywall. “This is not purely a consumer product safety issue. This is a man-made disaster that has wrecked homes and communities.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext.2630.

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