Disaster Officials Collecting the Dead

Toll expected in thousands, as some medical relief hits a roadblock

MONDAY, Sept. 5, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- The grim task of dealing with the dead from Hurricane Katrina came into sharp focus Monday as authorities began collecting and counting the bodies strewn throughout still-flooded New Orleans.

And health relief efforts appeared to hit some red tape, as hundreds of volunteer doctors were reportedly stalled in their attempts to reach the survivors and others said their offers of help were basically ignored.

In the first official death count in the New Orleans area, Louisiana emergency medical director Louis Cataldie said authorities had verified 59 deaths -- 10 of them at the Superdome, the Associated Press reported. The Superdome had housed thousands of refugees in what soon turned into nightmarish conditions last week.

The U.S. Public Health Service said a prison morgue near New Orleans was expecting 1,000 to 2,000 bodies. And more than 160 were known dead in Mississippi, according to the state's emergency management team.

The preliminary counts seemed to confirm what the nation's top health official had admitted Sunday: The dead will number in the thousands.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told CNN he couldn't provide a precise number for victims of the deadly storm, but he added, "I think it's evident it's in the thousands."

On Monday, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin predicted on NBC's "Today" show that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000" dead.

And the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, warned that there will be gruesome sights in the days ahead.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Chertoff told Fox News . "We are going to uncover people who died hiding in the houses, maybe got caught in the floods. It is going to be as ugly a scene as you can imagine."

Meanwhile, help for the living was an uphill battle in some places.

A convoy of 100 surgeons and paramedics in a state-of-the-art mobile hospital was marooned in rural Mississippi as of Sunday, AP reported, because Louisiana officials would not let them into the New Orleans area.

"We have tried so hard to do the right thing. It took us 30 hours to get here," said one of the frustrated surgeons, Dr. Preston "Chip" Rich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That government officials can't straighten out the mess and get them assigned to a relief effort now that they're just a few miles away "is just mind-boggling," he told AP.

Other doctors also complained that their offers of help were turned away. A primary care physician from Ohio said he had called and e-mailed the HHS after seeing a notice on the American Medical Association's Web site about volunteer doctors being needed. An e-mail reply told him to watch CNN Sunday night where Leavitt was to announce a Web address for doctors to enter their names in a database.

In Biloxi, Miss., the kind of water-borne disease health officials have feared began to finally surface six days after Katrina hit, with officials closing a shelter there after more than 20 residents developed vomiting and diarrhea linked to what doctors believe may be dysentery.

Although residents had been warned to avoid drinking the water at the local school, some may still have done so, officials say. On the other hand, "Who knows what they swallowed before they got here, half of them were swimming in stuff that we don't even know what it was," Biloxi police Cpl. Kayla Robert told AP. All of the sick are being treated with antibiotics, officials said.

However, Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was touring the devastated areas, said her biggest concerns now are tetanus and childhood diseases.

"Tetanus is something we'd be especially concerned about," she added. Tetanus lives in soil and can enter the body easily through a scratch, and many survivors have endured filthy conditions.

In New Orleans, however, there was hope as the area's hospitals have at least been stabilized.

Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans has resumed surgery, and two of its clinics along the north shore of New Orleans have also opened.

An Ochsner spokeswoman said the emergency department was filled with search-and-rescue victims and walk-ins Monday.

But even with the arrival of military convoys carrying food and water to thousands of desperate people in the Convention Center, the health problems still are massive.

One expert thinks that a variety of health dangers are a significant problem for refugees along the 90 miles of Gulf Coast that took the brunt of Monday's storm.

The first problem is access to clean, potable water, said Dr. Eric A. Weiss, an emergency medicine expert at Stanford University School of Medicine. He also noted that "people, particularly elderly people, have been displaced from their normal medical care. They need access to their medications and to physicians."

Weiss downplayed concerns about diseases from the vast number of corpses floating in the water. "The danger is highly overrated," he said. "There is not a significant danger of disease from floating bodies."

But the enormous psychological impact of the week-long struggle for survival is now beginning to show, as experts had feared.

Two New Orleans police officers, including the department spokesman, Paul Accardo, committed suicide over the weekend by shooting themselves in the head.

And Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, cried on NBC's "Meet the Press" as he told the following story:

"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?'And he said, 'And yeah, Momma, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday'. And she drowned Friday night. She drowned on Friday night."

More information

For more on the disaster response effort, head to the American Red Cross .

SOURCES: Eric A. Weiss, M.D., emergency medicine expert, Stanford University School of Medicine, Calif.; Katherine Voss, Ochsner Clinic, New Orleans; Sept. 4, 2005, news release, Health and Human Services; Associated Press; The New York Times; CNN
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