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Public Health-Risk Questions for Returning New Orleans Residents

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August, 500,000 people lived in New Orleans. Those who could evacuate did. Now, seven months later, fewer than half the city's population has returned. Recent polls indicate a majority of residents living elsewhere wants to come back, but they are worried by the city's uncertain future. Their concerns range from the safety of the levees to the lack of housing and jobs. And they worry, too, about the public health risks in the mold and muck the flooding left behind. This report is narrated by Margaret Kennedy.

More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on this Gulf Coast City, most of New Orleans is still a remarkably desolate place. Flood-damaged homes have been turned inside out with the belongings stacked in piles out on the streets.

Ollie Robinson, a returning resident, has gutted her first floor and treated for mold. Pointing to a line on a wall stud as high as she is tall, she says, "Right here. You see on the boards. That is how high the water actually got." She says she followed health advisories and wore protective gear distributed by volunteer groups while work was being done. Other than a spider bite she says she has not had any health problems. But she is concerned about relatives, "But my brother-in-law did. My brother did. And I have a friend. He can hardly walk a block. He can't breathe good."

Recent analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental organization, and other groups found mold in the air and toxic chemicals in the soil that present potentially serious health risks to returning residents.

Wilma Subra is an environmental chemist. She has taken samples of sediment from impacted areas and assessed the public health situation. The samples show levels of arsenic and lead three times higher than Louisiana state standards. "The health impacts we are seeing are skin rashes, infections of the skin that don't respond to normal antibiotic treatment. And then the respiratory [problems] -- a lot of people have caught a 'Katrina cough.' You have asthma attacks. You have chronic bronchitis."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disputes the reports from the environmental groups.

Sam Coleman, a senior EPA official, says the EPA and other federal and state agencies have taken more than 1,000 soil samples. Air and water sampling is on-going. Coleman says the results should not deter residents wanting to return.

"The environment in New Orleans in particular and in the Gulf Coast in general is basically the same or in some cases better than it was pre-storm."

Toxicologist Tom Harris with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality shares that view. "Where we disagree with (environmental groups) is interpretation of the soil and sediment data." "Is it safe for people to come back long-term? Is it safe for people to bring their children back? That is what we are still evaluating. The overwhelming answer is that it is safe."

Robin Barrett, whose home is in an upscale community that was also inundated after Katrina, hears that message. "I kind of kept up with the reports when I was in Houston as to what was going on down here. Right now I am coming back home. The things that I need to do as far as the inside of my house is concerned have been done. That's all I can do -- take it one day at a time."

But as she looks around at the gutted homes and debris piles that stretch down the street, she wonders how many others will follow her lead.