A federal judge in Gulfport has dismissed one of the lawsuits filed by military families who say they have been sickened by toxic mold in Keesler Air Force base housing, one of many widespread complaints about the U.S. military’s privatized housing.
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said during a recent Armed Services Committee hearing that moisture and mold have been reported in 91% of Keesler housing built after Hurricane Katrina.
It was the largest housing construction project in Air Force history, with $287 million spent on more than 1,000 homes.
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, who recently visited Keesler, said families have been forced to relocate up to four times in recent years.
Substandard housing conditions
Mold in Keesler housing is only one of the problems that families have reported nationwide and even overseas with privatized military housing. With housing allowances and limited options, military families have been described as “captives” to the housing companies that now own and manage base rentals.
They have described military leadership, here and elsewhere, as unresponsive to their complaints.
The widespread nature of problems with military housing were first reported in “Ambushed at Home,” a series published by Reuters news agency.
CBS news recently reported that private contractors are responsible for more than 200,000 homes on military bases. In 2016, the news network said, the Defense Department’s inspector general cited “pervasive health and safety hazards.”
Proof lacking, judge says
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. has dismissed one of 14 lawsuits filed against the owner and management company for Keesler housing: Hunt Southern Group and Hunt MH Property Management.
Among other things, Guirola said the family failed to establish through expert medical witnesses that the symptoms they suffered were specifically caused by mold in the home, as state law requires. Experts could say only that mold can generally cause those illnesses, the judge noted.
Guirola’s ruling came in the case of a family who says they have suffered from chest pain, sinusitis, congestion, respiratory problems, rhinitis, fatigue, headache, rash, allergic reaction, dermatitis, nausea, vomiting and cough.
Medical examinations ordered by the court concluded mold exposure did not cause the family’s illnesses.
The law firm for the families, Rushing & Guice of Ocean Springs, is appealing Guirola’s decision. Attorney Billy Guice said the other 13 cases his firm is handling have been stayed until the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the appeal.
“This is a systemic problem throughout the military,” Guice said. “It is, in my view, a national disgrace. Our clients are trying to prevent other military families from going through the same thing.”
‘Jerked around by the system’
Wicker and others say improperly installed ductwork and air conditioning systems caused the mold problem in Keesler housing. A news release his office sent out also said “remediation efforts often fail to fix the problems and can disrupt the lives of service members and their families for weeks at a time.”
Repair schedules are in some cases extended multiple times, the news release said, before work is complete.
“This is called being jerked around by the system,” Wicker told Barrett during the hearing.
Barrett said she would work with the Senate committee to fix the problems.
“We owe it to our Air Force families to get this right,” she said. “With your continued support, we will.”
AFB, Hunt working to fix problems
Keesler families allege in their lawsuits that in many cases, maintenance workers wiped away mold with soap and water but did not fix the underlying issue, causing mold to return.
Keesler’s 81st Training Wing hosted forums in July to address housing concerns.
“The action items we took from those forums formed the foundation for our continued work with Hunt to review base housing conditions, improve maintenance processes, and proactively address safety and security concerns,” Col. Heather Blackwell, 81st Training Wing commander, said in a news release after the forums.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I feel confident we are making progress. The progress is never as fast as I would like, but I’m not letting up on ensuring our base housing residents have a safe, secure and healthful environment in which to live.”
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