Health Emergency Engulfs Hurricane Areas

Federal officials declare the entire Gulf Coast in health crisis

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 31, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- As the toxic backwash of Hurricane Katrina continued to swallow up New Orleans and surrounding areas, federal officials declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast Wednesday.

Relief efforts took on an even-greater urgency with the mandated evacuation of flood-ravaged New Orleans, as massive rescue operations mounted along a path of devastation spread across four states.

There were these new developments, according to news reports:

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, concerned about potential disease outbreaks, was sending medical experts and mental health personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He urged residents of the coastal area to boil water and follow food safety precautions as well as to avoid situations that might lead to carbon monoxide poisoning from electricity generators.
  • The Red Cross reported that more than 45,000 victims of the storm were housed in its shelters as of Wednesday and the number was growing steadily. Some 250 shelters were open in the storm-damaged area and 15 emergency kitchens capable of feeding 350,000 people were also there, according to spokeswoman Deborah Daley. "We are focused on providing the most elemental essentials ... food, shelter and water," she added in what the Red Cross was calling its largest relief effort in history.
  • More than 20,000 storm refugees who had been sheltered in the Superdome were being trucked to the Houston Astrodome after conditions in and around the New Orleans arena deteriorated rapidly with floodwaters rising outside and no electricity, air conditioning or flushable toilets inside.
  • The U.S. Transportation Department dispatched more than 400 trucks to move 5.4 million MREs (read-to-eat meals); 13.4 million liters of water; 10,400 tarps; 4,900 rolls of plastic sheeting; 3.4 million pounds of ice; 10 mobile homes; 144 generators; 20 containers of disaster supplies; 135,000 blankets; 11,000 cots; 200 tables; 450 chairs; 1 all-terrain vehicle; 19 forklifts and three 100-person and nine 50-person field office kits to the areas hardest-hit by Katrina's Monday strike and its aftermath.
  • Four helicopters from the USS Bataan, now sailing off the coast of Louisiana, were flying medical evacuation and search and rescue missions. And the hospital ship USNS Comfort was departing Baltimore to bring medical assistance capabilities to the Gulf region and should arrive in seven days.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services said 250 mobile hospital beds and associated equipment have arrived at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Thirty-eight Public Health Service officers are at the facility, along with disaster medical assistance teams and State health care professionals. The mobile units could help fill in critical holes left by the evacuation of hospital personnel from New Orleans-area hospitals that were flooding or operating only on backup generators.

In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the massive flooding could turn the affected areas into a breeding ground for a variety of serious health problems, hurricane experts had predicted on Tuesday.

"Nobody should come back to New Orleans for a week," said Ivor van Heerden, the director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge. "They wouldn't be able to get to their homes. There's no food, there's no water, and anybody coming home would be entering a wilderness."

Among the potential health problems left in the wake of the hurricane's landfall Monday are intestinal diseases from contaminated drinking water and sewage overflow.

"We know New Orleans is having problems with its drinking water supply," van Heerden said. "They've lost pressure. That means it is not a contained system."

And because the city lies below sea level and depends on a network of pumps, canals and levees, some of which have already failed, there is also the potential that untreated sewage has gotten into the water system, van Heerden added.

"They are trying right now to get the drainage pumps operational," he said. "They have to repair some of the pumps and pump stations.

There is also the possibility that chemicals have polluted the water system. "We are not sure right now what chemicals are there," van Heerden said. "We have had reports of gasoline smells in some areas."

In addition, floating debris, which can block the drainage canals and foul pumps, is going to make reducing the flooding very difficult, van Heerden added.

"New Orleans looks like a war zone, so there's debris everywhere," he said.

There is also the potential risk of an increase in West Nile infections throught the hardest-hit areas, which stretch east through Biloxi and the Gulfport areas in Mississippi to Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, van Heerden said.

"Very shortly, we will see a fairly dramatic increase in the number of mosquitoes," he said. "We are at the heart of our West Nile fever season, so there could well be a dramatic increase in the infection rate."

An increase in exposure rabies is also a potential threat left by the storm.

"A lot of wildlife is infected, especially raccoons. They, like humans, have been displaced from their homes, and are looking for shelter, and there is the potential of humans or their pets being bitten by these rabies infected animals," van Heerden said.

van Heerden also noted that there have been reports of natural gas leaks, and there is also the potential of leaks from chemical plants and pipelines.

In addition to these problems, van Heerden said that there will be an increase in trauma-related injuries. "For example, people falling off ladders, electrocuting themselves and those who get hurt scrambling around their homes, all that increases the potential of tetanus."

By Wednesday midday, as rescue efforts continued, estimates of the fatalities still remained speculative, but were expected to be in the hundreds.

More information

Experts at the University of Iowa can tell you more about health risks from flooding.

SOURCES: Ivor van Heerden, Ph.D., director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, Baton Rouge; wire service reports
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