Mold, debris, toxins, stress: Dealing with the impacts of Hurricane Katrina

April 26, 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was left with a huge mess: miles and miles of flooded neighborhoods, wrecked homes, mountains of debris, stressed-out residents, polluted schoolyards, and mold, everywhere.

L. Faye Grimsley was one of the thousands who lost a home in the 2005 hurricane. She’s an expert in environmental health who, in the wake of the devastating storm, studied how mold and other contaminants affected public health in New Orleans.

Grimsley, Yerby Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health, spoke about the environmental and social impacts of Hurricane Katrina at the annual Yerby Diversity Lecture in Public Health in Kresge Auditorium on April 5, 2012. The lecture—named for the late Alonzo Smythe Yerby, MPH ’48, who was an HSPH professor and head of the former Department of Health Services Administration (forerunner to the Department of Health Policy and Management), and an African-American pioneer in public health—brings minority scientists and scholars to HSPH to speak on important health topics.

Grimsley is on leave this spring from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Global Environmental Health Sciences.

Storm-related distress

The hurricane left wide swaths of New Orleans in shambles. It also wreaked havoc on public health. Grimsley said several studies showed that mental problems soared after the storm; today, 30% of people in New Orleans still report some form of storm-related mental distress, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2010 study of parents found that roughly 37% of children in the city were diagnosed with a mental condition after the storm.

Grimsley experienced the storm’s impact first-hand. “When I walked into my home with my family after Katrina, it was one of the most devastating things I had ever seen—the mud, the mold, the stench,” she recalled.

Mold, toxins, asthma

Mold in flooded homes was a major problem. Grimsley was a co-author on a 2006 study that found that even if a home was only flooded partway, mold often crept up inside the walls, well past the waterline. Their findings suggested that all the sheetrock should be replaced in homes with mold—a daunting task, since renovation and repairs often ran into tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes well past $100,000.

In another study—“Head-off Environmental Asthma in Lousiana,” or HEAL—Grimsley and colleagues monitored children for exposure to environmental toxins and assessed social and health care disruptions in their lives. In one of the study’s findings, 75% of children had a positive skin reactivity test to one of several molds, up from 64% before Katrina. As part of the project, asthma counselors helped families reduce children’s exposure to mold and other allergens such as cockroaches and dust mites.

Schools posed dangers to children, too. Grimsley cited a 2010 study that found potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, iron, lead, and thalium in a number of New Orleans schoolyards after Katrina.

Future challenges

New Orleans still has a long way to go to offset the widespread property damage, social disruption, and environmental effects of Hurricane Katrina, Grimsley said. The city’s population dropped from about 485,000 in 2000 to 344,000 in 2010, according to the 2010 census. The percentage of children decreased from 27% of the population to 23%, likely a function of closed day care centers and schools.

Violent crime has gone down, but still remains stubbornly higher than that in the rest of the Louisiana and the nation. Two major hospitals remain closed; some in the city must travel 20 to 30 minutes to reach the closest one, Grimsley said. Much debris remains in parts of the city, left just as it was after the storm.

Grimsley cited a May 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation report, “Giving Voice to the People of New Orleans,” in which African Americans, more than whites, reported dissatisfaction with progress on neighborhood rebuilding and crime control. They said they had trouble finding affordable housing, jobs, and adequate health care for themselves and their children.

But amidst the devastation there are positive developments, too, Grimsley said. New Orleans residents feel mostly positive about the return of basic services, the reopening of schools, and the repair of levees, pumps, and floodwalls. New housing—constructed to better resist floods and winds—is being built in flood-devastated areas. And tourism, a key economic engine for New Orleans that took a huge hit after Katrina, is on the rise.

“New Orleans is making progress,” said Grimsley, “but a lot still needs to be done.”

Karen Feldscher