Thursday, September 29, 2005
This afternoon I will describe ATSDR’s ongoing contribution to the Hurricane Katrina response, based on its unique expertise and experience in responding to emergency releases of hazardous substances under Superfund.
ATSDR was established under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), to assess and prevent or limit potential exposures to hazardous substances and associated adverse health effects. Each year ATSDR conducts assessments of potential exposures to hazardous substances, and potential associated health impacts, at hundreds of sites around the Country.
Frequently these assessments are conducted in connection with an emergency response, where ATSDR is called on to support response work in communities impacted by acute releases of toxic chemicals. Through 25 years of experience in emergency response under Superfund the Agency has developed a workforce with experience and expertise that is directly applicable to assessing potential exposures and human health threats from exposure to contaminated floodwater, soil and sediment in the wake of a natural disaster.
The wealth of skills in our multidisciplinary workforce -- from physicians to toxicologists to epidemiologists to environmental engineers to health education specialists and risk communicators -- coupled with the location of ATSDR field staff in EPA regional offices around the country, allow ATSDR to mobilize quickly and coordinate effectively with HHS and CDC and other agencies within the Department, and with EPA and other government agencies, in a strategic response to emergency situations. ATSDR staff in the EPA regional offices work collaboratively with EPA and state partners to prepare for and respond to chemical and other public health emergencies.
ATSDR performs emergency response activities under the National Response Plan. ATSDR collaborates extensively with other federal partners as part of the Emergency Support Functions (ESF) dedicated to public health and medical services as well as oil and hazardous materials responses. These correspond to ESF 8 and 10, respectively.
ATSDR Response to Hurricane Katrina
Working in close coordination with HHS and CDC, as well as with EPA, ATSDR is providing critical expertise, resources and assistance to the multi-level public health response to Hurricane Katrina. The discussion below describes three primary components of ATSDR’s ongoing contribution to the response: (1) Participation in task forces and work groups established by the Administration to assess environmental health needs and related policy issues; (2) Playing an integral role in the CDC Emergency Operations Center, and deploying staff to emergency operations centers in HHS, FEMA and EPA; and (3) Working in the field to assess the potential for exposure to hazardous substances that may adversely impact human health.
(1) Environmental Health Needs & Habitability Assessment Joint Task Force of CDC/ATSDR and EPA, and the Environmental Impacts and Cleanups Working Group of the White House Hurricane Katrina Task Force
One unique contribution by CDC/ATSDR to the Hurricane Katrina response was leading a joint CDC/ATSDR and EPA task force that developed an initial assessment report identifying the overarching environmental health and infrastructure issues related to reinhabiting New Orleans.
At the request of Secretary Michael Leavitt of HHS and Administrator Steve Johnson of EPA, CDC/ATSDR and EPA established the joint taskforce to conduct the assessment. I had the privilege of serving as Chair of that joint taskforce, which was made of a multidisciplinary and multiagency team with expertise in environmental health science, environmental engineering, medicine, health and risk communication, and administration/logistics. The initial eight-member team consisted of personnel from CDC/ATSDR and EPA.
The team began its work on September 6, 2005, and completed it on September 12, 2005. Our work was guided by six key questions:
Initially we made contacts with CDC leadership on the ground in New Orleans, and with other key federal, state and local public health and environment leadership. In addition, we completed air and surface level tours of New Orleans to see firsthand the impact of Hurricane Katrina. In conducting the assessment, CDC/ATSDR and EPA collaborated extensively with a diverse group of federal, state and local officials with expertise in public health and the environment, including the New Orleans City Public Health Department, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
The taskforce identified 13 environmental health and public health infrastructure issues to address. This initial assessment includes drinking water, wastewater, solid waste/debris, sediments/soil contamination (toxic chemicals), power, natural gas, housing, removal of flood water, occupational safety and health/public security, vector/rodent/animal control, road conditions, underground storage tanks (e.g., gasoline), and food safety. The report also identifies a number of barriers to overcome and critical decisions to make prior to reinhabiting New Orleans. The mayor and city officials who will make these decisions will be able to draw on the expertise of the participants in the Joint Task Force and other partners. Dr. Howard Frumkin, the new Director of ATSDR, was recently deployed to Louisiana to continue the Agency’s work.
ATSDR also is participating actively in the Working Group on Environmental Impacts and Cleanup, which is part of the White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina. The Deputy Secretary of HHS and the Deputy Administrator of EPA co-chair this working group. I have served as co-chair of the New Orleans Subcommittee of this group, and other ATSDR and CDC staff are members of the Guidelines, Sampling, and Communications Subcommittees. The Working Group is particularly focused on policy issues related to Environmental Impacts and Cleanup, and has served as an important locus for inter-Agency discussions. The Environmental Health Needs & Habitability Assessment Joint Taskforce that I headed in Baton Rouge has now been consolidated within the New Orleans Zip Code Assessment Group; this interagency group is providing technical input by neighborhood or zip code on environmental issues related to the return of residents to New Orleans.
(2) Emergency Operations Center
ATSDR leadership and staff serve as incident managers; provide GIS mapping and services, tools we regularly use to identify areas of potential or actual chemical exposure; and subject matter expertise for public health and risk communication. For example, Dr. Tom Sinks, Acting Deputy Director of ATSDR, served as CDC’s public health lead in the CDC Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta during the initial phases of the hurricane response. Captain Scott Deitchman, USPHS, M.D., ATSDR’s Associate Director for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, has taken over in this capacity in the on-going CDC/ATSDR response.
As of September 23, 2005, at least 55 ATSDR staff have been deployed to Hurricane Katrina response activities in the CDC Emergency Operations Center or into field operations including the FEMA Regional Resource Command Centers and the HHS Secretary’s Emergency Response Team. As an HHS agency, ATSDR has deployed many Commissioned Officers through the Office of Force Readiness and Deployment/Commissioned Corps Readiness Force.
Also, currently ATSDR regional representatives are located within the EPA Headquarters Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Washington, D.C., EPA Region IV EOC in Gulfport, Mississippi, EPA Region IV EOC in Atlanta, Georgia, Region VI Joint Field Office (JFO), Baton Rouge, Louisiana and in the EPA Region VI EOC, Dallas, Texas.
In addition, a significant number of staff at ATSDR headquarters in Atlanta have been supporting a variety of Hurricane Katrina response activities and back up those deployed into the field.
(3) Deployments to the field to assess potential for exposure to hazardous substances with adverse health impacts
A significant number of CDC/ATSDR staff members have been deployed into the field or serve as subject matter experts in the areas of toxicology, sanitation, food and water safety, vector control issues pertaining to aerial spraying of pesticides for mosquito abatement, evacuation center operations, emergency response, epidemiology, environmental engineering and public health infrastructure, community relations, public affairs, and health education.
In addition, ATSDR regional representatives in Mississippi and Louisiana are in the field with the EPA on scene coordinators investigating chemical spills and providing technical assistance as needed to resolve questions about the potential for exposure to hazardous chemicals, and to assist the CDC senior management official. ATSDR has been working with EPA to assess the condition of Superfund sites and other industrial sites in the affected areas, and will continue to participate in more detailed assessments in the future.
In the Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, ATSDR staff is providing support to EPA field deployed staff, serving on the debris removal and health and safety committees formed by FEMA, and assisting the environmental unit of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. In Texas, ATSDR regional representatives are coordinating with EPA at the Dallas EOC on sampling and chemical release issues.
ATSDR also is working closely with CDC and the New Orleans Public Health Department to re-establish basic public health services to the residents of New Orleans at temporary facilities.
ATSDR will remain in close contact with federal, state, and local partners to ensure that the public health expertise of this Agency most effectively serves the needs of the people and the communities in the affected areas. ATSDR will continue to provide technical assistance on issues related to potential exposure to hazardous substances by the public and response workers. We anticipate this need will continue for at least several months. Additionally, ATSDR will continue to address issues related to the assessment of potential health effects resulting from exposure to hazardous substances in the environment.
Amidst the hurricane response work, ATSDR continues to focus resources on priority Superfund activities. ATSDR is continuing to pursue these activities, but recognizes that there may be some delays as a result of on-going deployments and hurricane-related support. ATSDR is taking steps to minimize disruption to other parts of its program.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today about ATSDR’s participation in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
At this time, I welcome your questions.
Environmental Health Needs and Habitability Assessment
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:
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.
The EH-NAHT has the following conclusions based upon our initial assessment:
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.
Last Revised: September 29, 2005