|On August 26, 2005, I was in New Orleans, manning the National Library of Medicine exhibit at a medical job fair. The television in my room didn’t work, so I had gone to bed Friday evening without hearing the weather report. The following morning I was blissfully unaware of the approaching hurricane. After a leisurely breakfast, I arrived at the exhibit hall to find exhibitors frantically dismantling their booths. Everyone was talking about the hurricane.
I wasn’t too worried. Frankly, I thought people were over-reacting. Hurricane warnings are summer constants in southern Louisiana; most of the time they don’t become serious. Since all the exhibitors and attendees were leaving, I decided to take the exhibit materials back to Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSU-HSC) before driving home across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. When I got to the LSU-HSC library building, the doors were locked, and I had to bang on the doors for Security to let me in. They told me that the building was closed because of the storm. It took a good deal of persuasion for me to convince Security that the exhibit belonged to LSU-HSC. Finally I was escorted upstairs and allowed to deposit the exhibit in the library.
Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly clear that many people were taking the situation very seriously. Someone had arrived to remove laboratory animals, and a policeman informed Security that the New Orleans Police Department was taking over the parking garage. As I began driving home, the Mayor was on the radio, telling everyone to “get out” of New Orleans. I realized I was only moments ahead of a mass exodus.
I live in a rural area, and my family decided to wait out the storm there. On Sunday, the hurricane winds and rain pounded the area for hours. (1) The electricity went out and the skies darkened. It became very scary when the tall pine trees started snapping. Over 100 pine trees blocked our road. It was several days before we could leave the property. Phone lines were down, and cell phones stopped working. Electricity was not restored for three and a half weeks!
After enough of the trees were removed from the road, we managed to drive to Baton Rouge for supplies-no stores in our area were open. Cell phones worked in Baton Rouge, but there was no news about St. Tammany Parish. No one knew how far the devastation went. On our way back from Baton Rouge, we drove past Lakeview Hospital (one of the sites where I work). There were a significant number of trees down, along with signs of wind damage, but there was no evidence of flooding. I couldn’t get into the institution however as security wouldn’t let us inside.
About ten days later, I was able to go to my other site, Slidell Memorial Hospital. The storm surge had brought the lake water up to less than half a mile from the hospital. The neighborhood suffered severe wind and water damage. Huge trees lay on crushed homes and flood soaked furniture was everywhere. The hospital had remained open through the hurricane, and was accepting emergency patients. More than half of the hospital employees lost their homes or could not live in them. Those who had livable homes shared them with other staff and family. Some staff and many rescue personnel ended up staying at the hospital.
My first day back at Slidell Memorial, I couldn’t go into the library at all. I was asked to assist in setting up day care services in the hospital so employees could return to work. But I didn’t mind in the least being at work (because the hospital, unlike my home, had electricity and running water). The library is located on the first floor next to medical records and rehab. Luckily, someone from rehab had thought to put plastic on the collection before the storm hit. It was a good thing, since the roof had leaked. There were trash cans and hastily gathered containers full of water standing on the library counters and desk. A restoration company arrived to remove the humidity from the air and prevent mold from growing. They dried out the whole hospital. I was surprised at the large containers of water that was “de-humidified’ from the library.
I was allowed back at Lakeview Regional Medical Center after about two weeks. During this time I hadn’t heard from other SEL-AHEC (Southeast Louisiana Area Health Education Center) co-workers, or even my library assistant. I tried to call other library contacts, but couldn’t reach anyone. One of the first calls I received was from Greg Bodin from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine/South Central Region (NN/LM SCR) in Houston. Ethel Madden from Oschsner called the following week and related all the New Orleans news. The pair of us concluded that as far as medical library services in Southeast Louisiana-we were “it.”
Ethel and I began to coordinate our efforts toward recovery. Neither of us lost our homes (although we did host displaced family members). Since our energies weren’t consumed with simply trying to survive, we were able to work and try to help.
The harrowing after-affects of Hurricane Katrina are far from over. I recently traveled through Gulfport, Mississippi, where the Highway 90 Bay Bridge at Bay St. Louis had only just re- opened. (2) What I saw along the highway was truly devastating. It will take a long time for the gulf coast to recover. No one knows the full health effects from the aftermath. Respiratory illness and unusual rashes are common, even though epidemiologists found no lasting effect on the air quality. (3)
(1) For a chilling official report on Hurricane Katrina, see: Knabb, R.D., J.R. Rhome, and D.P. Brown. 2005. Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005. Miami: National Hurricane Center. http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/TCR-AL122005_Katrina.pdf accessed 7/6/2007.
(2) For more about the bridge, see: Nossiter, A. May 29, 2007. A Bridge Restores a Lifeline to a Battered Town. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/us/nationalspecial/29bridge.html?ex=1338091200&en=24a98c1c1216af01&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss accessed 7/17/2007.
(3) This article seems to convey the ambiguity of the health situation: Wilson, Jennifer F..Health and the Environment after Hurricane Katrina. Annals of Internal Medicine 17 Jan 2006; 144(2):153-156. http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/full/144/2/153 accessed 7/6/07.