HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Legal and Public Health Response to Katrina

As noted in today's edition of the CDC's Public Health News, Hurricane Katrina's aftermath poses huge challenges to public health authorities and legal authorities.  Here is their summary of an article in today's N.Y. Times by Lawrence Altman and Kenneth Chang (“Disease and coordination vie as major challenges”):

The public health consequences of Hurricane Katrina are likely to be enormous and long term, according to CDC, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies. Of particular concern is the potential for outbreaks of disease spread by contaminated drinking water, spoiled food, and insects, officials said. Multiple deaths have already been attributed to drowning and carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of gas-powered generators in poorly-ventilated areas. Emergency personnel are working to evacuate the remaining residents before disease outbreaks and other public health problems take their toll. “We’re racing the clock,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Department of Health and Human Services is working to send basic emergency medical supplies to the area, and to relocate patients stranded in flooded local hospitals. The U.S. Public Health Service deployed 38 doctors and nurses and has 217 more personnel on standby. Officials said rescue efforts would be complicated by broken glass, downed power lines, poisonous snakes, and raccoons, which can spread rabies and leptospirosis, a bacterial disease. Another concern involves residents who have lost access to needed prescription drugs and the potential for continued drug shortages at local pharmacies. “This is going to be a long-term event,” said CDC epidemiologist Dr. Thomas H. Sinks Jr.

Today's Washington Post on-line edition has a summary of federal agencies' responses to Hurricane Katrina as of 1:50 this afternoon:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the nation's disaster-relief agency, has provided medical assistance, search and rescue and support teams, supplies and equipment to the hurricane area.
  • The Coast Guard has rescued or assisted more than 1,250 people. It has recalled more than 500 reservists to help relief efforts and activated three national strike teams to help in removal of hazardous materials.
  • The National Guard is providing support to civil authorities, providing generators, medical assistance and shelters and augmenting civilian law enforcement.
  • The Defense Department has established Joint Task Force Katrina, based in Camp Shelby, Miss., to act as the military's on-scene command in support of FEMA. It will provide rescue teams and medical evacuation units, a hospital ship and disaster-response equipment.
  • The Health and Human Services Department has sent hospital beds and public health officers. It is helping to coordinate hospitalization efforts and is providing medical supplies.
  • Centers for Disease Control experts are working with Louisiana state officials to implement a mosquito-abatement program.
  • The Transportation Department is helping with damage assessments and is supporting detour planning and critical transportation system repairs.
  • The Agriculture Department is providing food and assisting in setting up logistics staging areas, the distribution of food products and debris removal.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is providing technical assistance to recovery workers and utility employers engaged in power restoration. In addition, OSHA is contacting major power companies to the affected areas to provide safety briefings to employees at power-restoration staging areas and informing workers about hazards related to restoration and cleanup.
  • The Internal Revenue Service has announced special relief for taxpayers in the disaster area.
  • The Small Business Administration will position loan officers in federal and state disaster recovery centers.
  • The American Red Cross is providing a safe haven for nearly 46,000 evacuees in more than 230 Red Cross shelters. It is also providing relief workers.

Meanwhile, state and local officials are sounding increasingly overwhelmed by the crisis.  This is from an AP story posted this afternoon (courtesy of Yahoo! News):

The mayor said Wednesday that Hurricane Katrina probably killed thousands of people in New Orleans.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and others dead in attics, Mayor Ray Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

The frightening prediction came as Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, while authorities drew up plans to move some 25,000 storm refugees out of the city to Houston in a huge bus convoy and all but abandon flooded-out New Orleans.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the situation was desperate and there was no choice but to clear out.

"The logistical problems are impossible and we have to evacuate people in shelters," the governor said. "It's becoming untenable. There's no power. It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials."

A full day after the Big Easy thought it had escaped Katrina's full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, inundating miles and miles of homes and rendering much of New Orleans uninhabitable for weeks or months.

"We are looking at 12 to 16 weeks before people can come in," Nagin said on ABC's "Good Morning America, "and the other issue that's concerning me is we have dead bodies in the water. At some point in time the dead bodies are going to start to create a serious disease issue."

How can the rest of us help?  Here's FEMA's list of organizations seeking or accepting donations:


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