By: Nina K. Carroll, M. Sci
When using the term “mass disaster,” many people automatically think of airplane crashes or devastating acts of terrorism. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared to shore along the Gulf of Mexico and changed traditional thinking for many and for some, forever.
Now FEMA has become a household word—and not a good one. Thousands of people have been displaced and/or left homeless. With their whole lives in a state of uncertainty and upheaval, these evacuees quickly became refugees. The stranded, the hungry, and the dead could be seen around the clock and around the world on every news channel. Video footage of bodies floating by the damaged and beleaguered Superdome could be viewed on countless internet sites. This was merely a dark omen for what was to come for the city known for its festive soul and rich history.
Like a macabre drama, people saw the looting and devastation and followed it daily in their homes and at work. As Americans, we shared the horror and disbelief of heavily armed troops attempting to restore order while under gunfire. How could martial law have been declared in towns that had formerly exuded southern hospitality? And how could it only have happened in the course of a few days? The situation spiraled downward at a frightening speed.
I was stunned speechless by every broadcast. The scene was one I had seen a thousand times before, taking place in some practically unheard of third-world country. These were scenes that I had flipped past on the news so many times, not caring because they were in another part of the world. Now it was occurring on streets I had walked down and to people that I know.
Once the stranded residents were evacuated, the rain stopped and the levees ceased overflowing, it appeared a reprieve could be in sight. However, Mother Nature can be relentless. Hurricane Rita rolled in on the heels of Katrina causing the levees to break and the city to flood once again.
Once again the levees were repaired and the pumps went back to work removing the water little by little. At long last, the water that flooded the city streets of New Orleans began to subside. Then the gruesome task of recovering the dead began.
This is the part of mass disasters that most people never get to see and few rarely ponder. Much like the aftermath of violent crime or suicide, little thought is given to who cleans up the blood and human tissue after the law enforcement personnel and technicians have left the scene. What happens when the crime scene tape comes down? For maybe the first time in history, the world watched the aftermath live on television.
Hurricane Katrina was a disaster like no other and the recovery of the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be a first for the nation. I imagine the ensuing recovery efforts will set the pace for any future natural disasters that befall the United States.
Fortunately, some measures were already in place; such as body recovery and identification protocol by the organization known as DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team). DMORT is a program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that responds only when requested and may be requested by any government agency or municipality upon applying for the necessary federal assistance. DMORT members are trained professionals who hold regular jobs and are on stand-by for being called to perform their duties for Homeland Security. These positions include odontologists, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, radiologists, photographers, etc.
Members are from all over the nation and are usually given at least a 48-hour notice before being called to duty and are expected to work for approximately two weeks at a time. Each worker is given a federal stipend, which is allotted according to their specific position, but they must take time off from their regular jobs to perform their duties. The shifts are long, physically strenuous, and emotionally grueling, not to mention being away from one’s family for an extended period of time.
The DMORT team also set up a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU) in a neighboring parish outside New Orleans. Due to the ability to respond quickly and having procedures already in place as a guideline, the DMORT team was able to recover, transport, autopsy, and document over 1,000 flood and hurricane victims. Of the 1,000+, almost all were positively identified. The few that were not may have possibly been transients, homeless, or medical records for comparison were unattainable, or lost their family members to Katrina and had no one left to identify them.
Many bodies were badly decomposed due to the heat, time exposed, and animal activity, thus further hampering their identification and any subsequent investigation. Investigators and recovery crew efforts were frustrated by the inability to do a thorough search for bodies until flood waters had receded and the military had rioters and looters under control. Many worked long hours under the threat of being attacked by rampant and desperate criminals wondering the streets.
Government officials feared the worst: that almost ten thousand would be found dead or not found at all. The estimation of the dead was uncertain due to the concept that many people would be found dead in their attics due to drowning while attempting to escape through the roofs of their houses. Fortunately, these numbers were greatly exaggerated.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast faced its own problems. Because of being at the forefront of the storm surge, some of the dead may have been washed out to sea making the chance of recovery almost non-existent.
After the bodies were recovered and more flood water was pumped out of the city streets, the clean-up of New Orleans began. At best, it could be called complete chaos. Contractors from all over the world were vying for the job of helping clean and rebuild New Orleans. Many of them were private companies under government contract but many government agencies were already there performing their jobs. FEMA was battling heavy public criticism and appeared to run amok attempting to put forth a new image of organization and competency. Nobody was buying the lie. FEMA Director, Michael Brown was removed from heading relief efforts for the New Orleans area and resigned shortly thereafter.
The flood waters also wreaked environmental havoc on the streets and the soil. Homes face structural problems such as mold/mildew and contamination by bodies that were not recovered for up to three weeks after the hurricane. According to one report, the water contained many times more contaminants and bacterium than allowed by government standards and was thus contaminating the soil.
By this time, residents had been displaced for several weeks and were anxious to return to their homes to assess the damage for themselves and retrieve their pets and personal belongings. The federal government was under intense public pressure to allow people in even though serious health risks were an imminent danger for the residents.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), homeowners whose residences are still salvageable, will need to have their heating/cooling/ventilation systems properly cleaned and decontaminated due to being submerged in flood water. Even the portions of the systems above the water line will also need cleaning and decontaminating due to condensation, mold/mildew, and various bacterium.
Chemical and fuel spills into the water have caused a nightmare for government officials such as the EPA and the CDC. The city’s water supply became seriously compromised, animals ran loose on the streets and police officers abandoned the city in the face of what appeared to be an insurmountable task. Fires and electrical hazards also placed rescue workers in danger while trying to perform their tasks.
Mother Nature had yet another cruel trick up her sleeve—the entomological dangers that were swarming above the billions of gallons of sitting water. Mosquitoes have long been the scourge of the Deep South and post-Katrina conditions only magnified the problem a thousand times. West Nile Virus, malaria and a myriad of other maladies transported by mosquitoes are a real threat to workers in the flooded city.
Many decisions must be made concerning the city’s recovery. The fortification of the levees is just a small part of the future plans. There has even been talk of tearing down the beleaguered Superdome due to the filth and contamination being beyond reasonable decontamination and cleaning possibilities. While evacuees were being detained in the Superdome, they had no electricity and the plumbing failed. These approximately 80,000 people were crowded together in the sweltering Southern heat, unable to bathe or use the toilets.
While I have fond memories of concerts in the Superdome, tearing it down may a positive step toward the psychological recovery of the city. The roof was damaged from the storm and the citizens were emotionally and physically damaged after retreating to it as their only port in the storm.
It is now a bio-hazard and a symbol of one of the worst and most embarrassing events in American history. Perhaps it is time to tear it down and rebuild something positive in its place. Perhaps it will be a step forward in rebuilding the lives and hopes of the people of New Orleans.