Is It Safe to Return?
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GWEN IFILL: The on again-off again plans to allow residents to return to the crescent city is a reflection of the uncertainties which remain three weeks after Katrina hit. So what do federal and local officials have to take into account before reopening the city?
For that, we turn to Dr. Fred Lopez, an infectious disease specialist at Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine in New Orleans; he was treating patients in Charity Hospital after the storm hit until he was airlifted out. And Walter Leger is the chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Economic Development Commission; he’s also former chairman of the New Orleans regional Chamber of Commerce.
Dr. Lopez, to put it as bluntly as possible, is it safe to go back?
DR. FRED LOPEZ: Well, in my discussions with officials in New Orleans, and specifically Jim Aiken, who’s our director of emergency preparedness for the LSU Health Sciences Center, it does not appear to be safe. My major concerns about the public health there include the safety of the water supply; the presence of mold; the anticipated increase in the mosquito population; and the decreased access to healthcare, particularly for people who have chronic diseases.
This is not business as usual with respects to medications and medical interventions. And if anybody comes back expecting to be able to access the healthcare system in the way that they could before, they’re mistaken.
GWEN IFILL: The way the mayor had planned it, Dr. Lopez, seemed to be a gradual return zip code by zip code to the areas which had not affected by the flood, at least not directly, at least not wet any longer. Was not even that cautious enough?
DR. FRED LOPEZ: Well, it was cautious. And I agree with educating people about the perils of returning. But the reality is, is that more of New Orleans has unsafe water supply at this point than has it, and certainly, the return in a orderly fashion is helpful. But the reality is, is that should many people come back to the city and for whatever reasons develop complications of returning to a city that doesn’t have the infrastructure that was there before.
The few hospitals that are open will not be able to accommodate all of the needs of the healthcare problems in the city.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Leger, you are a resident of St. Bernard’s Parish. Your home sustained some damage — which you can tell us about — in the flood. But you also are a civic booster and would like to see New Orleans get back to normal. How do you balance those things out?
WALTER LEGER: Oh, I think of course you have to take into consideration the health concerns, initially. We’re all intent on rebuilding New Orleans. The good news among some horrible news is that the French Quarter, the central business district, the uptown part of New Orleans is largely untouched by the major problems that impacted the city. And so those things that people outside of New Orleans love to come to New Orleans for are going to be fine. The bad news, of course, is that it’s going to take some time. But, you know, in a meeting just this morning of all the economic development groups in the metropolitan area, we were talking about, we are planning how we are going to rebuild the city and the infrastructure of the city, and that involves us as soon as safe getting back, getting businesses back, and businesses can’t go back unless there’s a infrastructure that involves the medical community, unless it involves food stores, gas stations and unless employees can have safe and reasonable places to live. So we’re anxious to start rebuilding.
For example in St. Bernard Parish my heart goes out to Jeff Lee who spoke to you a little bit earlier — the sheriff’s officer down there and others that are friends of ours and our heart goes out to them. But the message is this: We’re going to rebuild and we are going to rebuild it better. And interestingly, perhaps, we will have a second chance to build it the way we would like to build it in the future. But we have to be very precautions in how we do it. And we have to take our time. And we all want to go back.
Another aspect of it is many of us were in Hurricane Betsy 40 years ago. And one thing we learned, particularly in a community like St. Bernard and it will apply to the rest of New Orleans that didn’t experience it, is once we all start getting back, we’ll be rebuilding together; we’ll be growing back together. We’ll be looking out for each other. We will be seeing each other. A community like St. Bernard is close. It’s family. It’s an old community. We are going to get to rebuild it the right way; we’re going to get to rebuild it together. The large companies, for example, I can tell you — yeah. Mobil Oil Refinery is coming back in their own way finding places for their employees and building their own infrastructure.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Lopez, I wanted to ask you two of the hurdles and obstacles that president put out which you would be concerned about, which is the lack of potable water in so much of the area and also the growth of mold we have been hearing about and which we just saw in Tom Bearden’s piece. How significant are those as health hazards for people in trying to make a decision about when to come back?
DR. FRED LOPEZ: Well, they’re significant, particularly for people who have chronic, debilitating medical illnesses. I would recommend that anybody who has those types of illnesses or immuno compromise by virtue of cancer, for example, or taking immuno suppressive medications like steroids or who have heart failure or emphysema, these are people who are more likely to suffer complications from being exposed to, for example, mold.
There are allergic reactions to mold and then there are invasive complications of mold where the mold can get through the airway and then invade the lung tissue. And the people who are most likely to develop those complications are those who have emphysema and other chronic medical conditions that affect the lung.
So those individuals, I would recommend until these issues are addressed in their own homes, if they don’t have any reason to return, to stay where they are in safer environments and where they can access the healthcare system to address their chronic medical conditions.
The safety of the water supply can affect anybody, healthy or even individuals who have chronic medical conditions. These infections that can be passed through water that’s contaminated with sewage and other fecal materials has the risk of creating infectious diarrhea in anyone. And for that reason, people should avoid any areas where there’s water that is deemed unsafe by virtue of the fecal coliform counts that are being monitored daily by the Office of Public Health.
GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you and also Mr. Leger about a point he just made. Is there a distinction to be drawn in terms of what places you can return to between the business community, the French Quarter, the Garden District, the part that all the tourists know about and the rest of the city, which was more severely damaged and presumably some of which is still damp? Is there a distinction in your mind about which places would be safe to go back to and which are not?
WALTER LEGER: Well –
GWEN IFILL: That is to you Dr. Lopez. Okay, you start first, Mr. Leger. Then we’ll go back to Dr. Lopez.
WALTER LEGER: Yeah, I mean, your question really is a health question. But I think, you know, we’re all going to look to the medical community for advice in that regard. But we can’t be guided by the fact that those other places are safe. People really can’t go back to work there until other places are cleaned up and provided that do have good water, that do have gasoline, that do have food and do have healthcare for their employees to go back. So it’s going to be a very complicated move back. But we’re going to go back.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Dr. Lopez?
DR. FRED LOPEZ: And I would follow up on that — that the safety of the water supply is being monitored closely. Not all areas have water that’s contaminated to high degrees of fecal coliform levels that would make it unsafe. And those areas are clearly the areas that should be — have a reintroduction of the population.
It’s those areas where the fecal coliform counts remain high, or where there are lead contamination or other environmental toxins where I think we need to be a little bit more prudent in the way we bring people back into the New Orleans area. That’s my concern.
And again, it’s the issues regarding people who have frail medical conditions who expect to have a business as usual mentality about their access to healthcare are going to be surprised if they return to the city now, because those medical clinics that were available to them by phone and/or by transportation are not going to be as readily accessible to them. And that’s the patient population that I’m really worried about.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Leger, are you concerned as the mayor appeared to be in his appearances over the weekend and again today, are you concerned there may be an inertia that sets in that makes it impossible to jumpstart New Orleans’ return to economic health and that the longer people stay away, the more difficult it will be to get back to where you want to be?
WALTER LEGER: Well, we’re kind of on life support right now, as a matter of fact. But hopefully, you know we have a spirited and talented business and political community and hopefully with medical community brings back the economic health. And there is a concern but the concern is that the people of St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans and Platens Parish and the surrounding parishes affected are the workers, the employees, small business people are simply frustrated and confused and unable to make long-term decisions at this time. You know, I’m going to ask them to be patient. But patience is tough at a time like this in the context of insurance, in the context of work, and jobs, and income and otherwise on what the federal government is willing to do.
We’re very grateful for the rest of the country for the support that we have. Yes, there’s concern about an inertia, but what we know is New Orleans is one of the great cities in the United States and in the world. The port has reopened. The airport has got 19 flights a day as of this morning. They’re growing as the demand grows. Businesses are moved back into Jefferson Parish, which is a big part of our economic engine on the west side of New Orleans, which had, you know, relatively less damage. And they’re going to be jumping off points for us to, I guess, to strategically attack, you know, getting business going again in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, which is of course a major industrial quarter. So yes, there’s an inertia, but we think we can overcome it. We’re anxious to get going but we want to do it in a healthy way.
GWEN IFILL: Walter Leger and Dr. Fred Lopez thank you both for helping us out.