Environmental Health and Hurricane Katrina

Examining Hurricane Katrina's toxic brew

3 min read

The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought a tremendous amount of suffering to residents of the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. More than 800 000 homes were destroyed or became uninhabitable, communities were shattered, and families were torn apart as members were relocated to the far corners of the country. Financial and emotional stress escalated, resulting in heart attacks and high blood pressure, which could be measured immediately. Now, more than two years into the recovery period, many residents believe the worst is over, even as their neighbors show signs of suffering from long-term health problems that may be due to Katrina and its aftermath.

Many Gulf Coast residents in FEMA trailers have experienced short-term respiratory problems as a result of excessive formaldehyde exposure (from poor-quality pressed board and particleboard used as building materials). Some residents and volunteers alike have developed infections from post-storm exposures to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus , often after injuring themselves while clearing debris and rebuilding their communities.

Not surprisingly, the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome has its counterpart in environmental health. The average resident will typically be far more concerned about the relatively benign but jolting visual effects of cloudy drinking water and barren lawns rather than the invisible threats posed by more serious toxins.

What is it that cannot be seen? Sometimes it is the arsenic in the soil that may or may not have been dredged up from the overflowing canals of New Orleans. Sometimes it is other heavy metals that may or may not have infiltrated residential areas when waste ponds of chemical plants overflowed along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Sometimes it is the ominous cancer train, trailing behind the short-term respiratory problems induced by exposure to high levels of formaldehyde in the air. Sometimes it is the dioxins that spill into the bays and climb up the food chain, entering the human body through the seafood supply. Sometimes it is the exposure to immeasurable volatile organic vapors through paints, stains, and a host of other solvents used to rebuild. Sometimes it is the E. coli and fecal coliform that regularly crop up in coastal waters when waste treatment plants run over capacity in rainy periods. So many ”sometimes” mean that every resident always has at least one dangerous level of exposure in his daily routine. The total cost of these net environmental exposures will not be fully measured or seen for decades to come.

These challenges pose opportunities for innovative work for engineers of every discipline. The multiplicative effects of the environmental impacts through air, soil, and water exposure to toxins demand paradigms that transcend conventional disciplinary lines. Community activists, environmentalists, business owners, engineers, nonprofit groups, and governmental agencies would benefit from working together to create innovative solutions. The impact of these problems and the solutions to them will certainly resonate well beyond the Gulf Coast and the Katrina experience.

About the Authors

DENISE WILSON, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, completed her first stint as a Hurricane Katrina relief volunteer in November 2005 in Mississippi, where she spent a week gutting devastated homes. Since then, she has returned in two additional service trips and in full-quarter and miniquarter service-learning programs with University of Washington students (in the winter and summer of 2007). She has also played a role in testing, interpreting, and reporting the exposures and environmental health consequences played out by Hurricane Katrina. Wilson received a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1988 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford and the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1989 and 1995, respectively.

ELLA KLIGER was born in Boston. She received a B.A. degree in communications from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1991. She is currently working as an independent filmmaker. Her recent documentary, The Kindness of Strangers: Katrina Connections , is in the final stages of postproduction. Her documentary focuses on the dynamic stories of the connections forged between volunteers and residents in the post-Katrina environment along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. For more than a year, she has been engaged in the post-Katrina recovery effort with a variety of disaster relief organizations. Her Web site, at https://www.reelrelief.com tells the stories of communities that are committed to rebuilding from the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history.

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