With the hurricane recovery effort still in its early stages, University professors, who are experts in the field, anticipate authorities and hurricane evacuees will find a rotten landscape plagued by sewage and disease.
Contamination and disease
Technically, the entire city of New Orleans is contaminated says Rolf Deininger, professor of environmental health sciences.
“People need to get out of there as soon as possible,” he added.
After the sewage waters flooded the city, Deininger said New Orleans became a cesspool that will need to be decontaminated to render it habitable.
Deininger, an expert on water contamination who has studied the effects of disasters on sanitation systems, said along with the sewage entering the flood waters, the water pipeline system may have became contaminated.
JiYoung Lee, a research investigator at the environmental health sciences department who works with Deininger, said because New Orleans lost electricity with the hurricane, there would have been no way to power the water pressure that prevents the sewage water from mixing with the drinkable water in the pipelines.
“Now you have to flush the entire system,” Lee said. “You have to clean all the pipes.”
Lee added that many of the hurricane evacuees still residing in the city have weak immune systems because of the dire living conditions.
With temperatures and humidity high, bacteria will easily be able to grow, putting evacuees at high risk of infectious disease, Lee said. Along with the bacteria, she added that people who are remaining the city could be easily infected from the toxic substances emanating from the sewage in the flood waters.
Deininger and Lee are also working to improve a technique that allows them to detect bacteria in water within 5 minutes. Current detection methods take 7 days.
Identifying the dead
Bloated, crushed and dilapidated, perhaps thousands of bodies still wait to be recovered as authorities continue to search for the dead. But Dentistry Prof. Jack Gobetti said identifying the many unrecognizable bodies might prove to be a challenge that’s impossible to overcome.
Gobetti, an expert on dental identification of deceased bodies, said the two primary methods of identifying the dead are through dental records and DNA. Despite these techniques, neither may prove to be of use to the identification efforts.
“The problem with both of them is that all identification is comparison. Now there are no more postmortem records. They were washed away,” Gobetti said, adding that many of the dental offices that housed the dental records of hurricane victims were destroyed in the flooding.
Gobetti also said many of the hurricane victims were from low-income families that may have never been able to afford appointments with their local dentist, meaning they may not have dental records.
Comparing the disaster to Sept.11 Gobetti said, the deaths from the terrorist attack were in an isolated area. The deaths from Hurricane Katrina spread across hundreds of miles, and for this reason many bodies may be misreported as an unrelated hurricane fatality.
And as the bodies continue to decompose, Gobetti said having family or friends identify bodies will become nearly impossible.
“All the way around, its going to be terrible,’ he said.
Other ways to identify dead bodies are to use fingerprints, find identification in the clothing or place the dead as the residents of the homes they are found in.
But Gobetti said, “I’m almost willing to bet we won’t be able to identify all the bodies. The bodies will be too badly destroyed.”
If that is true, many families may have difficulties moving on with their lives not only emotionally, but also financially.
“If it’s a relative and you don’t have a death certificate you can’t settle life insurance polices,” Gobetti said.
“You can’t remarry. You can’t get social security payments. There are so many legal ramifications with a death certificate.”
The threat of mold
While the hurricane displaced thousands of people from their homes, feeding off of the disaster is mold that could pose a health risk for returning evacuees.
Usually found in the outdoors, the various fungi that make up mold grow naturally through spores and play a role in the environment by slowly consuming dead organic matter.
Victor Roth, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences said because mold thrives off of moisture, it sometimes also enters into a house if mold spores land on a wet surface.
Because thousands of homes were flooded by the hurricane, Roth fears that entire neighborhoods may have become infested with mold. Not only will this cause physical damages to the inside of buildings, but could also cause allergic reactions if inhaled because mold spores are allergens.
Sneezing, runny noses and skin rashes are some of the common symptoms if a person breathes in mold spores for an extended period of time.
But the young and elderly, along with people who have weak immune systems, may develop more severe symptoms like asthma attacks or heart conditions that could be life threatening.
“What happens if they go back to those areas and remain in those enclosed spaces? Roth asked. “The mold is growing and they would be breathing in a lot mold spores. People with preexisting allergies and asthma, their symptoms would be exacerbated by that,” he added.
Mold takes time to develop Roth said, so he does not anticipate it will become an important issue in the shortterm.
However, when hurricane evacuees can begin returning to their homes several months from now, many once-flooded homes may be infested with significant amounts of mold.
To safely remove the mold, homeowners would need to completely replace the mold-infested areas, but because many of the hurricane victims were also from low-income backgrounds, these people might attempt to get rid of the mold by scrapping it off.
“They are going to start scraping and sawing and that will make the spores spread around even more,” Roth said.