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Health Care Workers Face Tough Challenges in New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have created an epic crisis for Louisiana's health and hospital system, as officials try to locate, and care for, evacuees with physical and mental illnesses, and head off potential disease related to the floods. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with the director of the state agency responsible for overseeing those efforts.

As Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Dr. Fred Cerise has had little time to rest since Hurricane Katrina and the catastophic flooding that followed. Dr. Cerise spoke with VOA in the state capital at Baton Rouge while a helicopter waited outside, ready to take him on an inspection tour over a devastated New Orleans.

“Our priority now is essentially establishing a medical system for a million people who have been displaced from the New Orleans area,” said Dr. Cerise. “These are people have had chronic diseases and other physical mental diseases and disabilities, those type of things that were all 'plugged into' health systems in that area that don't exist anymore.”

Dr. Cerise's department has overseen efforts to relocate patients evacuated from New Orleans hospitals to medical care facilities in other parts of the state. It has also set up temporary shelters for those with special medical needs that do not require hospitalization. He adds that many with psychological needs also need urgent care.

“First and foremost you've got the people who have responded to the crisis, and the things they were dealing with. Crowds of people, people that were dying. We have people that were out in the field seeing bodies and things like that who have been traumatized. We do have teams out there working with them to address those needs,” he added.

Dr. Cerise also stressed the need to help Louisianans with pre-existing mental health conditions. Many depended on a state-run mental health system that no longer exists.

“And so we are starting to see emergency rooms around the state that are being crowded with people with mental health needs because they've lost that system of care. A lot of these people were stable [and] doing well, and need to make sure we connect them back to a system of care so they get their medications and remain in a stable situation,” he noted.

Dr. Cerise's agency is also responsible for maintaining the health of the general public and its environment quality. Ironically, Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed in its wake rendered most of New Orleans' water undrinkable.

“We actually have a team, a large team, here from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that is coming down to help us with our environmental assessment,” he said. “Even though the water may be running, you have had stagnant waster. It can be contaminated. There are many places where the drinking water is not safe. You've got the flooding and it overwhelms the water systems… We'll [also] be flying and doing mosquito abatement. This issue we're dealing with is West Nile [virus]. This is the season for that.”

Dr. Cerise and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals are not working alone. A disaster this large and complex requires the help and coordination of dozens of government and private agencies and groups, as well as hundreds of volunteers. Dr. Cerise says he is especially heartened by the support that has come from peoples and governments abroad.

“These are our families,” said Dr. Cerise. “These are our neighbors. We are expected to work and take care of them. But for people from around the world to come and have the outpouring of help that we're seeing is just an incredible endorsement for mankind!”

Dr. Fred Cerise is Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He spoke with VOA in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.