September 15, 2005
As the result of the field assessment report which follows, the Rural Recovery Task Force has taken this action:
SMHA’s board member and State Representative Sydnie Mae Durand has arranged with the Governor’s office and top health officials in Louisiana to prepare re-entry field procedures of massive numbers of evacuees returning to check out their property and thus being exposed to high levels of mold and toxic sediment in their homes and communities.
Before dawn on September 15th, five members of the Rural Recovery Response Task Force left for a damage and needs assessment trip in the four hardest hit parishes below New Orleans. Arriving back to New Iberia at 8:30 pm, perhaps the one word that best described our impressions was overwhelmed with what we saw. The task force was overwhelmed with the courage of some we met. Take for instance the self-sufficiency and resolve of rural communities such as Jean Lafitte who through the leadership of Mayor Tim and a cadre of town volunteers who had organized themselves to make sure their citizens had their basic needs met while still waiting assistance from FEMA some 15 days after the storm. While applauding how this community has come together, we know that if additional resources are not provided immediately the community will not have the stamina to go on as is.
As we drove along some 250 miles of highways up and down the fingerlets that make up coastal Louisiana we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction. Not just in the structural damage of places like Ironton where the storm surge raced up the Mississippi River from the coast, packing enough force that the surge came over the levee to move houses and roads some 30 yards from their original locations. While talking to a few people who were coming back to assess their homes, we saw first glimpses of the psychological toll the stubborn reality that this hurricane will have on people.
Traveling into the 9th Ward and New Orleans East on streets recently drained of the toxic soup, we smelled and saw the social toll of Hurricane Katrina as the underbelly of our nation’s failed social and economic equity policies were exposed in such a concentrated form.
Traveling out to Chalmette and St. Bernard’s Parish, home to oil and gas refineries; home, too, to shrimpers and fishers who provide the nation’s table with seafood, we saw the health concerns that the entire region faces.
Concerning the public health concerns of the affected communities, Oxfam International’s Dr. Sergio Alvarez, M.D., M.PH, a Peruvian specialist in disaster and risk management and a member of Southern Mutual Help Association’s Rural Recovery Response Team, had this to say following the team’s observational trip on September 15th:
“At this time there is simply not enough information to determine the real risk individuals will face upon returning to their communities. The public health hazards are there and it is too soon to fully assess the risk without more information. As much as I understand families desire to return to their homes, we need an independent investigation before people, particularly our children, elders and pregnant women, can safely return to homes in the affected areas. In some areas where the EPA has taken samples, the published information is incomplete. If the public doesn’t have good information, and we don’t have an integrated observation process, it is very difficult to assure the health of individuals returning to their homes. An independent investigation for mapping the critical areas regarding hazardous materials is prudent as will be the need for an integrated public health services over the long term to support individuals and communities who may find themselves in high risk exposure.”