A Hurricanes Enduring Aftermath

A Hurricanes Enduring Aftermath

Gregory Button came back from Texas with a hoarse throat, bleary eyes, and a collection of heartbreaking stories. It was mid-September, and he’d just spent a week in the Houston Astrodome assessing the needs—met as well as unmet—of evacuees from the flooded city of New Orleans. What he found was disturbing.

Inside the Astrodome, lights stayed on 24 hours a day, and a loudspeaker blared almost constantly. Desperate, sleep-deprived evacuees who’d lost homes—and in many cases loved ones—struggled to make sense of what had happened to them and what to do next. Some told Button they felt like prisoners in the heavily militarized stadium complex. While the on-site medical clinic functioned efficiently, social services were poorly coordinated, and the Astro-dome campus itself was so vast that many evacuees had no idea where to go for the help they needed. Signs for missing persons were everywhere. People stood in line for hours, in intense heat, waiting to apply for benefits from organizations such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It was heart-rending,” said Button, who found himself struggling to find a balance between the objectivity he needed as a scientist and the compassion he felt as a human being.

On September 16, Button shared his experiences with the University of Michigan community and the Ann Arbor public during a School of Public Health–sponsored panel discussion on the public health aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

An adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and a core faculty member of the Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness, Button is an expert in crisis communication; disaster preparedness, response and recovery; and the long-term effects of disaster. He has conducted extensive studies on both natural and manmade disasters in Europe and the United States, including the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Button’s Katrina research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

During his initial trip to the Astrodome, Button took two recent SPH graduates, Jennifer Dickson and Marta Prescott, with him to help conduct interviews, and together they gathered data from nearly 100 evacuees, all of whom were displaced and many of whom were trying to locate family members.

Button went back to the region in October to assess the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on New Orleans itself and adjacent parishes, with an emphasis on displacement, and he planned to return to the Gulf Coast in November to interview evacuees, this time with assistance from three SPH students who are enrolled in his “Communities in Crisis: Public Health and Disasters” course at SPH. In February, Button will take five additional students from the course to the area to conduct further research.

Button said it wouldn’t surprise him if it took 15 to 20 years to rebuild the infrastructure in the devastated region and for people to recover fully. But as dire as conditions were in the Astrodome, what he saw there also inspired him.

“To some degree it testified to how resilient we are as people,” he said, adding, “As researchers, the question we need to ask is how resilient are communities?”

SIDEBAR: SPH Responds

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the School of Public Health community rallied to help victims of the disaster. Since then, those efforts have multiplied. Here’s a glimpse of what’s happening:

Six students from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine have continued their public health educations as non-degree students at SPH until they’re able to return to Tulane in January 2006.

The SPH Office of Public Health Practice provided staff support to the Region 2 South Medical Bio-Defense Network Office and the State Health Operations Center.

Alumnus Michael Jhung, a 2005 graduate of the school’s Preventive Medicine Residency program and now an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was deployed to Texas to assist hurricane evacuees.

With funding from the Dean’s Office and the Office of Public Health Practice, a team of SPH students will be sent to the Gulf Coast to examine the public health impact of the hurricane season and to aid in sustained relief efforts.

Several SPH student associations joined forces to collect and donate sunscreen and insect repellant to protect relief workers in hurricane-affected areas n In conjunction with the inaugural symposium of the Center for Risk Science and Communication, SPH faculty, students, and alumni con- ducted a panel discussion on the public health aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As co-director of the Disaster Research Education and Mentoring Center, Associate Professor Sandro Galea has worked with over 30 researchers and public health practitioners in Louisiana and Mississippi to develop hurricane-related research projects and project evaluations.

Matthew Boulton, SPH Associate Dean for Practice, took part in a September 9 panel discussion sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, entitled “First Response to the Hurricane Katrina Disaster.”

The Astrodome campus itself was so vast that many evacuees had no idea where to go for the help they needed. Signs for missing persons were everywhere.

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.