Accidents, mold pose biggest health problems in hurricane-hit areas

Monday, November 14th 2005, 10:40 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Donald Roberts Sr. was prying off molding from a wall in his hurricane-ravaged home when a piece broke loose and hit him, embedding a nail in his arm.

He pulled out the nail and headed to a temporary emergency hospital downtown for a checkup and a tetanus shot.

``I just wanted to make sure,'' the 57-year-old Roberts said while waiting in the labyrinth of medical tents set up in a parking lot.

Health officials say accidents like Robert's and the explosion of mold in homes and buildings pose the biggest health risks in Gulf Coast areas hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The disease outbreaks feared earlier didn't materialize in the weeks after the storms.

``People are going back to their house, cleaning up, going up on their roofs, doing all kinds of stuff they're not used to,'' said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana's state epidemiologist.

Roberts said his one-story home was filled with 8 feet of water after Katrina and needs to be gutted. While waiting for his insurance payments, he's ripping out the walls himself.

``If I had the insurance, I could pay someone to do it,'' Roberts said Thursday. ``But if you don't, you have to do it yourself.''

Construction worker Tito Pac, 25, of Atlanta, sought treatment at the clinic for a bruised arm. He was helping move a kitchen cooler at a closed hotel when his arm was crushed against a door.

``It's just a little sore,'' he said, cradling the arm in a sling.

In the days after Katrina hit, there were dire predictions of disease outbreaks from contaminated floodwaters, unsanitary living conditions and mosquitoes breeding in the hot and humid coastal climate.

``The infectious disease risk was overblown,'' said Dr. Pierre Buekens, dean of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. ``But I think the mental health risk and the risk of accidents was understated.''

He said Tulane researchers have found few mosquitoes in the city's flooded areas, probably because breeding sites were blown away. And with fewer cars, the air quality is better than before the storms, he said.

``Things are better than expected,'' Buekens said.

Exposure to the mold flourishing in flooded buildings can pose health problems, especially for those who have weakened immune systems or mold allergies, said Dr. Stephen Redd of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health.

Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, stuffy nose and skin rashes.

At the downtown clinic, Dr. Peter DeBlieux said they're treating a lot of people with those kinds of problems. But whether it's the mold, dust, allergies or some other cause isn't known. There's also a lot of pollen in the air because there hasn't been a heavy rainfall recently, he said.

``Everybody's calling it the 'Katrina cough,''' he said.

Sitting in the clinic's waiting room, Rose Howell, 21, of Detroit, coughed repeatedly while waiting to see a dentist. She said she developed the cough and a stuffy nose this week while helping a resident pack up and move furniture from a house and storage area.

Ratard said he sees how dusty the city is each morning by the layer on his car.

Except for the dust, he said, there ``is nothing extraordinary in New Orleans and the surrounding areas'' that is a major cause of concern.