Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.
Environmental Health Needs and
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention &
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
September 17, 2005
We are committed to working with the mayor and city officials and other federal, state, and local agencies and relief organizations to bringing back the great city of New Orleans. The Mayor of New Orleans has announced plans to reopen parts of the City to businesses and residents. While decisions regarding when and how to lift the mandatory evacuation order generally are within the authority of State and local officials, the Federal government has a responsibility to inform these decision makers and the public of the potential health and environmental risks associated with returning to the City.
This report provides an initial assessment of the overarching environmental health and infrastructure issues faced by New Orleans to reinhabit the city. It was prepared by a joint taskforce of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA and CDC are collaborating with state and local public health and environmental officials, including the New Orleans City Public Health Department, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Officials will need to attend to the environmental health and infrastructure issues identified in the report. EPA and CDC are committed to collecting and providing scientific data to decision makers and the public. However, the data are limited and conditions in the storm-damaged areas of the City are constantly changing. Consequently, significant additional risks may arise that do not exist currently. A wide variety of factors are driving the decision to reopen portions of the City, and many precautions beyond those mentioned in this report need to be taken. State and local leaders are advised to consider the potential hazards, caution returning inhabitants of the health risks, and provide for sufficient medical and other resources to address the returning population in light of existing conditions.
CDC and EPA are neither responsible for addressing all of the environmental health and infrastructure issues identified in the report nor for coordinating resources to attend to them. Furthermore, the report is neither a step-by-step guide nor a guidance document with criteria for reinhabiting the city.
The report identifies a number of barriers to overcome and critical decisions to make prior to reinhabiting New Orleans. CDC and EPA are not implying that it is our role to wholly attend to these barriers or make these decisions. These decisions will be made by the mayor and city officials in consultation with the authorities involved in the coordinated response.
The report is focused broadly at the city of New Orleans. Some of the environmental health and infrastructure issues discussed in the report may not apply to the less flooded and damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans. As a result, the decision to reinhabit New Orleans must be made neighborhood-by-neighborhood and requires a deliberate neighborhood-level analysis. Also, the decision to reopen a neighborhood must consider the impact of returning residents on the broader recovery and redevelopment activities for the whole city.
Everyone is eager to restore the vibrant and unique city of New Orleans. It is our hope this report will highlight some of the cross-cutting environmental health and infrastructure issues requiring attention to reinhabit New Orleans. However, this report should not be relied upon as a comprehensive assessment of the environmental conditions of the City of New Orleans, or of the human health risks associated with returning to reopened portions of the City.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Monday, August 29, 2005, as a category 4 hurricane and passed within 10 to 15 miles of New Orleans, Louisiana. The storm brought heavy winds and rain to the city, and the damage breached several levees protecting New Orleans from the water of Lake Pontchartrain. The levee breaches flooded up to 80% of the city with water reaching a depth of 25 feet in some places.
Among the wide-scale impacts of Hurricane Katrina, the storm caused significant loss of life and disrupted power, natural gas, water, and sewage treatment, road safety, and other essential services to the city.
Early in the disaster response and recovery, federal, state, and local elected officials and public health and environmental leaders recognized the significant role of environmental health in the post-hurricane rebuilding of New Orleans.
At the request of the Secretary Michael Leavitt of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Administrator Steve Johnson of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding, created the Environmental Health Needs Assessment and Habitability Taskforce (EH-NAHT). The taskforce was charged with identifying the overarching environmental health issues faced by New Orleans to reinhabit the city.
The EH-NAHT collaborated extensively with a diverse group of federal, state, and local partners, including the New Orleans City Public Health Department, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (LADHH), and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The team was guided by the following questions:
- What are the core or fundamental environmental health issues to be addressed;
- Which agencies and organizations at the federal, state, or local level are responsible for, or involved in, the various environmental health issues;
- What progress has been made and what challenges exist;
- What is the timetable to address these environmental health issues;
- What resources exist or need to be brought to bear to address these environmental health issues; andWhat are the key milestones and endpoints that define success.
The team identified 13 environmental health issues and supporting infrastructure to address. This initial assessment included drinking water, wastewater, solid waste/debris, sediments/soil contamination (toxic chemicals), power, natural gas, housing, unwatering/flood water, occupational safety and health/public security, vector/rodent/animal control, road conditions, underground storage tanks (e.g., gasoline), and food safety.
After the initial assessment, the EH-NAHT categorized these issues by increasing time and complexity to full restoration of services (Level 4, most complex and requiring the most time to restoration). Part of the complexity relates to how specific and explicit the criteria for the end points are for each function.
Occupational safety and health as well as public security was identified as cross-cutting all the other areas.
Long-term solutions to these many issues are critical to allow resumption of normal life in New Orleans and to prevent reoccurrence of such an event in this area.
- A complex array of environmental health problems exists in New
The most striking feature of the disaster is the array of key environmental health and infrastructure factors affected all at once. All key environmental health and related services are being reestablished, and this work needs to be done in a very coordinated and well-planned way.
- The unwatering of New Orleans is a critical first step.
The unwatering is an essential first step to allow access for assessment and repair of all basic services and habitability barriers. Some significant assessments are not yet started because of the continued unwatering, which could take an additional 4 weeks to complete. These assessments may impact the timing, resources and scope of the needed repairs/replacements.
- It is important to bring infrastructure systems in New Orleans
back on line.
Different timeframes are necessary to bring the various infrastructure systems (e.g., drinking water, wastewater, power, and natural gas) on line with varying degrees of capabilities. Restoring drinking water systems and wastewater treatment systems needs a planned approach, but full restoration will be delayed by the many breaks in the distribution and collection systems and by the need for upgrade and repairs in older systems. Unanticipated delays must be kept in mind in the process of unwatering and the scope and complexity of the interdependent systems.
- The cleanup of debris (including housing debris) and potentially
soil/sediment in New Orleans are rate-limiting factors. The timeline for debris treatment, disposal, containment, and transport, as well as for the testing of potentially contaminated soils/sediment, will slow or accelerate the rate at which the city can be reinhabited. The potential contamination of soils/sediments has great uncertainty attached to it. A comprehensive sampling and testing of a broad array of toxic chemicals will be required to identify any widespread contamination or selected hot spots and to ensure the safety of returning inhabitants or for redevelopment.
- Intense interest will exist to reinhabit New Orleans.
Significant pressure will occur to allow rehabitation. A single decision will not be made to reinhabit the whole city at one time. Rehabitation is expected to be done neighborhood by neighborhood IF it is possible to prevent access to the closed areas of the city. Worker safety and health as well as public safety and security are mandatory enablers for all of the activities.
- It is critical to address the housing issues in New Orleans.
Housing is likely the most critical issue in reinhabiting the city because of the
- Large percentage of city housing that was flooded and is not likely to be viable;
- Intense personal connection an individual has to their home;
- Legal, jurisdictional, and procedural issues involved in the decision-making process;
- Large proportion of the city population that is displaced. Some residents are a significant distance away from New Orleans or may not intend to return;
- Difficulty in establishing and maintaining communications with the widely dispersed population;
- Challenge of identifying acceptable methods and resources for assessing such a large number of homes; and the
- Scope of the demolition process and safe and efficient removal
- An immediate need exists to allow temporary or transient entry
workers, residents, and business owners. In the immediate period, explicit guidelines are being developed for safe entry of recovery workers to New Orleans, for brief entry by residential and business owners to retrieve key household or business items in neighborhoods of the city where it is safe to do so, and for reinhabiting the least impacted areas of the city where key environmental health and infrastructure conditions are met.
- Ensuring worker safety and health and public safety and security
Public security and intensive efforts to achieve worker safety and health for the very large recovery workforce, working often in extraordinarily difficult and challenging conditions, is essential to rebuilding New Orleans.
- The criteria for short-term and long-term return to New Orleans
should be tailored to the timeframe and population. Different criteria
will be necessary for the short-term and long-term return to the city
e.g., use of bottled water in the absence of potable water will be acceptable
for recovery workers and select others on a limited short-term basis
versus the general population, which includes children and the elderly
over the long-term).
- It is important to involve state, local, and other stakeholders
All the issues in reinhabiting New Orleans are interwoven, complex, and cannot be addressed individually. It is extremely important that decisions are made involving state, local, and federal staff as well as all other stakeholders, particularly the local population.
- Developing a shared vision for the rebuilding (including infrastructure)
Because of the magnitude of the devastation, it is critical that decisions be guided by a clear, shared vision by all stakeholders of what the rebuilt New Orleans should be. As devastating as this event is, the vision of the future of the city is critical in guiding development for such a widely impacted area.
- Federal, state, and local decision-makers should explore processes
used by other areas in devastating circumstances.
New Orleans should draw upon the experiences of other localities that addressed devastating eventsareas such as New York (World Trade Center), Florida (repeated hurricanes), and San Francisco (earthquake). Their experiences and solutions might serve as examples to New Orleans on processes that can be used for creating a broad vision for redevelopment, for identifying key decisions and strategies, and for involving all stakeholders (including the displaced population) in the broad-impact, critical decisions that will have to be made.
- Maintaining collaboration with involved agencies is essential.
Maintain, through FEMA and other mechanisms, broad collaboration and a true sense of partnership in developing a very coordinated and sustained effort to recovery.
- Attending to the housing decisions is critical.
A number of critical decisions need to be made about housing. These decisions include
- Developing explicit guidelines for entry by recovery workers, for brief periods of entry by residents and business owners to retrieve essential belongings, and for reinhabiting relatively undamaged neighborhoods of the city.
- Creating a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach for assessing housing, cleanup/demolition, and reinhabiting/rebuilding.
- Selecting method(s) for assessing large amounts of damaged housing, with rapid methods necessary for severely damaged housing.
- Resolving legal, administrative, and procedural issues.
- Fostering and maintaining ongoing contact with the large displaced
populationparticularly for any actions that might require
- It is necessary to maintain a systems-level perspective.
Monitoring the progress in all key areas of environmental health and infrastructure is important because reinhabiting New Orleans depends on success in all areas. This initial assessment identified 13 key areas that need to be tracked.
- Resolving potential toxic chemical exposures is important.
It is important to resolve the questions about the potential for toxic chemical exposure as quickly as possible. This issue has the widest degree of uncertainty.
- Officials should ensure public safety and security and worker health
Maintain a central focus on public safety and recovery worker health and safety throughout the rebuilding of New Orleans.
- Engage and communicate with the displaced population.
Develop a mechanism to regularly and substantively engage and communicate with the displaced population to provide a progress update on city-wide activities as well as activities related to neighborhoods and individual homes. This work could involve the use of GIS, the Internet, and other innovative strategies.
- Maintain a broad vision on issues affecting the rehabitation of
This initial assessment from the EH-NAHT focused on the immediate issues related to reinhabiting the cityprimarily those issues that affect essential systems for safe living. As these immediate issues are dealt with, it will be important to focus on issues related to quality of life and social well-being and how they are integrated into a redevelopment plan.
- Create a long-term habitability strategy.
The long-term solution to the risk of flooding and the viability of New Orleans depend on fully protective levee and unwatering systems for the population returning to and reinhabiting the city. It is extremely important to address the long-term protection of the city from another such event of this magnitude.
Federal, state, and local agencies and relief organizations are responding heroically to the disaster. All organizations, including the agencies represented on this task force, should be doing their utmost to assist in recovery and rebuilding.
These conclusions and recommendations are current at the time of writing. Because the situation is dynamic and changing daily, updates on various topics will be given periodically by various organizations.