Hurricane Katrina required an unprecedented response from many agencies. As a first responder, EPA traditionally focuses on hazardous materials and oil spills, but because of the size of the disaster, the immediate mission of all the responding agencies was to assist in the search and rescue efforts, noted Johnson. EPA mobilized over 60 watercraft to assist in the search and rescue efforts. Although these efforts were different from EPA’s primary responsibility, the EPA team was able to rescue approximately 800 people.
Following the search and rescue efforts, EPA resumed its primary responsibilities under the national response plan, said Johnson. One of its primary concerns during Hurricane Katrina was the floodwaters from the levee breaches. These floodwaters were covering a number of potential hazards, including the major sewer system for much of New Orleans—causing concern about fecal con-tamination—and many Superfund sites in the New Orleans area, noted Johnson. At the same time, EPA was concerned about the air quality in the region, another challenge for the agency. Although the EPA has stationary monitors throughout the country, most of the monitors in the Gulf Coast were damaged or destroyed during the initial disaster.
The affected area of Hurricane Katrina covered three states and 90,000 square miles. In the state of Louisiana alone, approximately 1.7 million people were affected by the storm and needed to be evacuated, noted Jimmy Guidry of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. This was a daunting task that required evacuating the most densely populated area of the state to unaffected regions both within the state and in other states around the country. The state of Louisiana evacuated approximately 1.5 million people before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. However, approximately 200,000 individuals (accurate numbers were difficult to attain) remained in the affected area as the disaster unfolded. Although some people chose to stay, others did not have an opportunity to evacuate because of unavailable resources, said Guidry.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the New Orleans Health Department faced many challenges in monitoring and assessing the environmental exposures and rebuilding the public health infrastructure. The city’s public health officials interpreted the exposure data for the general population and worked on protecting people’s safety as they returned to their homes, said Kevin Stephens, director of Health, New Orleans Health Department. A number of questions still need to be answered, including
What is the long-term risk associated with exposure?
What specific monitoring methodologies should be used?