Michael J. Ryan

As President Donald Trump travels to China to meet on trade and issues of foreign policy, Americans need to be concerned about a potential “silent hurricane” approaching from China.

It is a manmade disaster no less destructive in many ways than the natural disasters upon which it depends. While we are not without an opportunity to protect Americans from this “storm,” it will take political resolve and quick action on the part of the administration and Congress.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused catastrophic property damage throughout Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and many other places. Tragically, there have been too many deaths. And yet, we know the suffering is still not over for many Americans. The impact of these natural hurricanes could be magnified if we are not careful.

In 2009 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, other storms and a building boom, Florida, Louisiana and other states got hit hard by a manmade disaster — toxic Chinese-manufactured drywall. This silent storm of toxic drywall wrecked thousands of homes and tens of thousands of lives. Nearly 10 years later, too many are still suffering, and the Chinese companies have refused to accept responsibility.

With hundreds of millions of square feet of drywall imported from China, the dollar and human cost was staggering: an estimated 8,000 homes were impacted and most destroyed in the wake of the flood of toxic drywall. There were homeowners who survived the economic downturn of 2008 and were able to maintain their homes, even when the values fell below mortgaged amounts, only to be wiped out by the toxic Chinese drywall. Disturbingly, some homeowners who endured a rebuilding effort after storms such as Katrina and were able to move back in then found their home had been wrecked by this manmade Chinese drywall disaster.

Unlike a hurricane, those innocent homeowners had no warning for this toxic drywall storm.  They had no time to protect their families or their investment. When it was over, the homes had to be completely gutted down to the interior studs and rewired. The economic impact for those who were able to rebuild from the toxic drywall storm was estimated at more than $650 million and perhaps approaching $1 billion.

From a property damage sense, this was as bad, if not worse, for homeowners than an actual hurricane in some ways. Homeowner insurance companies refused insurance coverage; homeowners who sued to try to obtain insurance coverage lost in court. Builders and installers went bankrupt or had virtually no coverage. There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency or other government response to help homeowners.

Frustratingly, the Chinese companies who manufactured the toxic drywall refused to accept responsibility. They refused to appear in U.S. courtrooms. When sanctioned, they begrudgingly appeared but hid behind legal walls that make it difficult or impossible to demand accountability.

After taking advantage of the profitable business opportunities here in America that were created by the natural disasters, the Chinese companies thumbed their noses at American homeowners and the legal system meant to deliver justice for innocent homeowners who did nothing wrong. They understood that collecting a judgment in China is virtually impossible or only for pennies on the dollar. Even today, the Chinese companies involved refuse to compensate Americans for the damage they irrefutably caused.

 

PROTECTION NEEDED

Many homeowners just gave up. They couldn’t live with the noxious smells and alleged respiratory impacts. They couldn’t sell the affected homes except at well below market rates. Many mortgage companies refused to give homeowners a break. Not being able to both pay a mortgage on a destroyed home and move to another, foreclosures wiped out entire neighborhoods and generated the blight of abandonment.

Now, with the widespread physical destruction and flooding from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, it is predicted that tens of thousands of homes and commercial buildings will need hundreds of millions of square feet of drywall. If we do not take action now to protect the American people, we could face toxic Chinese drywall and building products destruction that will dwarf the magnitude of the last Chinese-caused storm of toxic products in 2009.

There are clearly steps that can be, and should be, taken to protect the American people.

First, Congress and the administration must take immediate steps to block the import of Chinese-manufactured drywall and any other Chinese building products until there are clear and enforceable standards to ensure the drywall is not toxic and products are safe.

Second, all importation must stop until the Chinese companies agree to the same level of accountability expected of American companies. Chinese manufacturers should not be allowed to seek profits here, inflict harm and destruction on the American people and then avoid the legal responsibility for what they have caused. If we do not demand such accountability, American companies are at a competitive disadvantage because they do not enjoy the luxury of avoiding the external impacts of defective products.

Third, there must be a widespread education campaign to warn communities of the potential for this “silent hurricane” before it is too late. From contractors to city halls, the U.S. government and agencies with the ostensible responsibility to protect Americans must initiate meaningful education efforts.

This approaching storm can’t be found on any weather radar. There are no color pictures to give us heart-stopping concern. However, we can’t ignore the fact that many people are still suffering to this day because of the toxic Chinese drywall, and that Chinese manufacturers still refuse to accept legal responsibility. With the president of the United States in China this month, let’s hope the message is made clear: Americans suffering from recent storms deserve nothing less than all necessary action to protect them this time around. The time to act is now.

Michael Ryan is a partner at the law firm of Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock Liberman in Fort Lauderdale, representing victims of toxic Chinese drywall and serves as the mayor of Sunrise, which was in a region impacted by toxic Chinese drywall. Contact him at mryan@krupnicklaw.com.