Gulf Wracked By Katrina's Latest Legacy—Disease, Poisons, Mold

Adrianne Appel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
for National Geographic News
September 30, 2005

A month after Hurricane Katrina tore through the U.S. Gulf Coast, medical experts are now struggling with the latest crisis in the region: contamination.

Katrina left New Orleans and other communities tainted with oil, sewage, and possibly poisons leached from federal toxic waste sites, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

The pollution, combined with the lack of regular medical services in the region, has raised serious questions about the safety of New Orleans and other coastal towns as people longing for home begin to go back.

"I don't think New Orleans is safe for people to return to, from a public health and environmental health standpoint,'' said Miriam Aschkenasy, an environmental health expert working with Oxfam America in the region.

Much of the contamination rests in the brown, filmy sediment left behind by Katrina's polluted floodwaters.

Recent EPA tests of the sediment confirmed high levels of E. coli bacteria, oil and gas chemicals, and lead, as well as varying quantities of arsenic.

The health risks posed by the sediment are immediate, experts say, because the sludge is nearly impossible for returning residents to avoid. In New Orleans, it covers every surface that was flooded, from cars and now-dead lawns to the entire contents of flooded homes, stores, hospitals, and schools.

"When people come back, they are exposed to the sediment," said Wilma Subra, a chemist from New Iberia, Louisiana, who is analyzing the sediment. "It's in their yards and houses.''

Old Pollution Resurfacing

Plaquemines Parish, a rural county on the peninsula south of New Orleans, is now covered with even more toxic sediment than it was two weeks ago, thanks to Hurricane Rita.

"Six inches up to one foot [15 to 30 centimeters] of sludge,'' Subra reported.

Much of the sludge in Plaquemines is the product of nearby bayous and bay bottoms, where sediment was lifted up by Katrina's and Rita's storm surges.

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