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Institute of Medicine (US) Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine. Environmental Public Health Impacts of Disasters: Hurricane Katrina: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2007.

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Environmental Public Health Impacts of Disasters: Hurricane Katrina: Workshop Summary.

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2Hurricane Katrina: Challenges, Concerns, Policies, and Needs

Stephen Johnson*

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast August 29, 2005, and within hours it became the largest natural disaster in U.S. history. The extent of the devastation was unprecedented and had an adverse impact on lives in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, said Stephen Johnson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In Mississippi, for example, one could drive for hours along the coast and see evidence of vast destruction. Even 100–150 miles inland from the coast, there was significant damage from the hurricane that was present for weeks after landfall. The situation was similar in Louisiana. The extent of the devastation means that responding will take sustained and long-term coordination across all levels of government as well as the communities and the citizens at large, noted Johnson.


As first responders, EPA traditionally focuses on hazardous materials and oil spills. Because of the magnitude of the disaster, Hurricane Katrina provoked an unprecedented response from many agencies. The immediate mission of all responding agencies was to assist in the search and rescue efforts, even if that wasn’t part of their original mission. EPA was able to mobilize over 60 watercraft following the days after the hurricane to assist in the search and rescue efforts. Although these efforts were different from what EPA staff and contractors were trained to do, the EPA team was able to rescue approximately 800 people.

Following the search and rescue efforts, the EPA immediately turned its attention to its primary responsibilities under the national response plan. The national response plan is the primary plan of coordination for the federal response to incidents of national significance, such as Hurricane Katrina. Multiple federal agencies and departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor, are involved in the national response plan. All the departments have a significant role to play at the federal, state, and local levels.

The type of incident and the location determine which agency will lead the response. For example, the Coast Guard is the lead agency when oil spills occur in the water, and EPA addresses oil spills on land. Both agencies closely coordinate their activities. For hurricanes, EPA either readies or pre-deploys personnel to the National Response Coordination Center of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. EPA also has its own emergency operation center and sends coordinators to the threatened areas. For Hurricane Katrina, EPA provided guidance on debris issues and assisted in the restoration of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems and the associated infrastructure. EPA also addressed hazardous releases and oil spills.


One of EPA’s primary concerns during Hurricane Katrina was the floodwaters caused by the levee breaks. These floodwaters were covering a number of potential hazards, including the major sewer system for much of New Orleans, which caused concern about fecal contamination. Also, because some National Priority Listed Superfund sites (the nation’s worst toxic waste sites) are in the New Orleans area, EPA had concerns about contaminants in the floodwaters. For this reason EPA began to analyze the floodwaters throughout the city. The agency ensured that its staff was following a sound scientific protocol in analyzing the floodwaters, and it also wanted to make sure that there was public confidence in the data. Hurricane Katrina was a real-time disaster; the EPA staff therefore needed to fulfill its tasks expeditiously in order to address multiple questions and concerns.

EPA worked closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the affected states’ governments to put together a water quality monitoring plan. In addition, EPA’s Science Advisory Board convened to provide advice and counsel while instituting a water sampling program. In coordination with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, multiple samples (631 at the time of the workshop) were taken from different sample sites, such as Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. A total of 400 samples have been analyzed and validated and the information made available to all government agencies, first responders, and the public.

Floodwater results for September 4, 2005, showed lead detected at levels exceeding EPA drinking water standards (EPA, 2005a). Furthermore, depending on where the sampling occurred, a number of other chemicals, such as arsenic and petroleum products, were found. Approximately 1,300 people (EPA contractors and personnel) helped to research, evaluate, and process the obtained information. By October 2005, about 80 percent to 85 percent of the drinking water systems and wastewater treatment systems were fully operational. However, 10 percent to 15 percent of the drinking water systems throughout the area were still either under boiled water advisories or not operating at all. Throughout the fall of 2005, infrastructure issues remained critical.

A secondary concern, once the floodwaters were pumped, was the soil sediment. EPA has collected 423 sediment samples; over 300 have been analyzed and validated and the information made available to the public (EPA, 2005b). The sediment samples revealed high levels of bacteria; a variety of other chemicals, such as petroleum-based products, ranging from fuel oil to volatile organic compounds; and an assortment of other compounds. In St. Bernard Parish, Murphy oil field was one of the five major oil spills that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. The force of the storm was so great that it picked up one of the storage tanks (with a capacity of about 250,000 barrels of oil), ripped it off the concrete pad, and moved the tank over, causing all the oil to spill into the water and the surrounding community. In total, there were four other major spills throughout the Gulf Coast, totaling approximately 1 million gallons of oil spilled.

At the same time, EPA’s concern about the air quality in the region was a challenge for the agency. Although EPA has stationary monitors throughout the country, most of the monitors in the Gulf Coast were damaged or destroyed during the initial disaster. To gather data, EPA used a very sophisticated aircraft called ASPECT (airborne spectral photometric environmental collection technology), which provides screening-level data. ASPECT can take both regular and infrared photographs, and it has the ability to detect radiation and a broad range of chemicals at the parts-per-million level. This technology allows for precise detection across a region; for example, it detected the presence of chloroacetic acid, and after the recovery team went to the site, it found a single barrel labeled as containing chloroacetic acid. In addition to ASPECT, EPA deployed TAGA (trace atmospheric gas analyzer) vans that have the capability of performing air monitoring. The testing of air quality continued through the fall of 2005 to monitor a variety of air pollutants, such as ozone, particulate matter, asbestos, and volatile organic compounds.

Another of EPA’s concerns was Superfund sites, some of which are in New Orleans and one of which was flooded. There are 54 Superfund sites in the impacted area. Some of them have been closed and corrected, some of them are still active, and some of those sites may have been compromised. As of October 20, 2005, EPA had visually inspected all of the sites and found no apparent problems. Sampling has been conducted at 10 sites in Louisiana, 3 sites in Mississippi, 6 sites in Alabama, and 12 sites in Texas, and sampling is ongoing at other sites. The sampling results were not available at the time of the workshop but will be available on the EPA website in the near future.

There are 54 National Priority Listed Superfund sites in the impacted area. Some of them have been closed and corrected, some of them are still active, and some of those sites may have been compromised.

—Stephen Johnson

An ongoing challenge is the disposal of debris, ranging from hazardous to vegetative waste and everything in between—from construction and demolition debris to white goods such as automobiles, appliances, and the like. Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana is crushing and processing about 100 tons of steel a day. EPA is encouraging recycling efforts because steel is expensive and recycling is a good way of reducing the impact on landfills.


First, EPA strove to remain committed to sound science and cut through the bureaucratic red tape that could have slowed its response. This approach has served the agency well and, more importantly, has helped in the providing, collecting, analyzing, and characterizing of environmental samples. The samples were put through a rigorous and vigorous analysis and quality control process, making sound science a priority in the midst of a crisis.

Second, EPA was committed to releasing the sampling information to decision makers and the public as soon as it was verified. EPA worked closely with federal, state, and local partners to ensure that they had the most accurate and updated information.

Third, EPA has carried out multiple outreach efforts in the form of advisories and announcements on post-Katrina issues. The agency used all means of communication, including TV appearances, radio announcements, public service announcements, press conferences, press releases, and safety advisories, and it posted information on its website using a new tool called Enviromapper, which combines interactive maps and aerial photography in order to display the test results from specific floodwater and sediment sampling sites in Louisiana. EPA’s commitment to communicate effectively was met, and the decision makers, the public, and the affected people could make informed decisions on the basis of the information provided by the agency.


Despite the tremendous efforts, a lot remains to be done. Throughout the fall, infrastructure issues were still a concern, including the remaining wastewater treatment systems and water treatment systems that need to be brought into full operation. The amount of debris across the impacted areas is still a major issue that is not going to be fixed or completed in the next days, weeks, or months.

This chapter is prepared from a transcript of Administrator Johnson’s presentation.



This chapter is prepared from a transcript of Administrator Johnson’s presentation.

Copyright © 2007, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK54235
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