Chemical and Biological Decontamination in the Field After Hurricane Katrina

Joe Hughart
Captain, Federal Occupational Health Service, U.S. Public Health Service
Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia USA

          Hurricane Katrina roared across Florida on August 25, 2005, killing 14 people. On Monday, August 29 th, Katrina made a second landfall at 6:10 a.m. Central Standard Time in southern Louisiana; and then proceeded across a bay to make a third landfall on the Mississippi coast at 10:00 a.m. The storm surge devastated businesses and homes within 1 mile of the Mississippi shore. Later that day, levees protecting New Orleans, a major American city located below sea level, were breached in three places, flooding most of the metropolitan area and suburbs. Katrina killed over 1,200 people in the United States. However, the main problem with this natural disaster, as with chemical and biological agent disasters, is not providing services for the dead. The main challenge is to provide the basic necessities of life to massive numbers of displaced people. Millions fled the storm or were later evacuated.

          Decontamination is a major response activity during chemical and biological disasters. The U.S. has spent millions of dollars over the past five years stockpiling various types of decontamination equipment. Most of this equipment is complicated, heavy, and bulky. It requires electrical power, gasoline and large amounts of water. This type of equipment works well for the weapons of mass destruction scenarios envisioned by U.S. planners for small or moderate disasters in urban areas, but how does one provide decontamination services when electrical power, fuel, and piped water are not available? These conditions are the rule, not the exception, during major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

          I manage a CBRNE cache at Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta, Georgia for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The Georgia National Guard assists with this program, and in turn I assist them when they need it. Both USAID and the Georgia National Guard deployed to New Orleans in response to the hurricane. The Guard sent helicopters and two companies of military police to restore security in areas plagued by looting. USAID deployed to link local emergency responders with goods donated by other countries.

          I spent the first week after the hurricane providing protective clothing to triage staff at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. We received over 2,000 evacuees from New Orleans on flights into Dobbins Air Reserve Base. On September 6 th, I deployed with the National Guard to St. Bernard’s Parish, Louisiana to provide public health support to Joint Task Force 169, consisting of National Guard units from Georgia, Colorado and Utah.

          St. Bernard’s Parish is bounded on the north by Lake Ponchartrain, on the south by the Mississippi River, and on the west by 9 th Ward, a crime-ridden slum of New Orleans. Over 97% of the Parish was under water when we arrived. The only dry areas were built up above the surrounding landscape: a refinery, a hazardous waste landfill, a hazardous material tank truck refurbishing company, and Chef Montour Highway. We encamped on the evening of September 6 th on top of the hazardous waste landfill. I prohibited the troops from digging into the landfill cover. We scrounged some oil drums to serve as toilets, laid our ponchos and packs on the ground, held a hasty planning session.

          When darkness fell, we deployed into the Parish to confront armed gangs of looters and pickup trucks filled with shotgun-toting, self-appointed “Special Deputies”. Security was established within 24 hours, and the mission shifted to rescue operations. We drove, and then waded, into knee-deep mud to locate survivors in houses.

          The force of the water breaching the levees carried fishing boats into the centers of neighborhoods. Cars were perched on top of houses, and houses on top of cars. Large shipping containers had floated in and deposited in a variety of odd locations.

          The St. Bernard Fire Department had one small decontamination tent. National Guard troops manning the tent tried their best to decontaminate other troops coming out of the mud with buckets of water and scrub brushes, but the New Orleans gumbo tenaciously stuck to clothing and skin.

          We worked without large, central showers for 10 days. Troops wading in a mixture of mud, sewage and hazardous chemicals develop skin rashes and fungal infections on their feet. Although expensive, complicated decontamination tents and pumping units were deployed to the area, these sat unused, because there was no gasoline, electrical power or piped water available to operate them.

          We quickly began looking for alternatives. The most popular, and effective means of decontamination were not centralized decontamination tents, but individual “field showers”. One very popular type of field shower was a one-person tent manufactured for campers. It had a 5-gallon bag of water suspended on a pole inside the tent. It required no gasoline, no electricity, and very small amounts of water. We ordered several of these immediately.

          Another “field shower” popular among National Guard troops who had recently returned from Iraq was the “MRE Bag”. They would eat their meals from military Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) field rations, save the small field rations bag, lather up with liquid soap, and rinse with very small amounts of water held in the field rations bag. They were quite used to this, and were content to cleanse themselves that way.

          Other troops would gather around 500-gallon water trailers called “Water Buffalos” to draw water from gravity-fed spigots and cleanse themselves. The water was pumped from nearby canals and purified via reverse osmosis. This worked well during sporadic periods when military diesel fuel was available.

          After several days, we discovered a small gasoline station that still had fuel in the tanks. I returned to Atlanta, and purchased several small gasoline-powered pumps, along with hoses and PVC piping to construct real field showers. We flew these back to New Orleans, and started cutting and gluing pipe in the field. We eventually constructed several field showers in this manner.

          For several days, I noticed three large tank trucks sitting by the road in the Parish. One day I approached a driver and asked him what they were doing. He responded that were sent by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver water to emergency responders, but no one had told him where the responders were located, so they just sat there. Such was coordination during the emergency response phase. We quickly grabbed this guy and his truck and brought him out to our field showers. We had all the water we needed after that.

          By the third week after the hurricane, piped water was again available, and the large, complicated, expensive decontamination tents could be used. However, the local fire department had experimented with using their pumping trucks for decontamination activities, and preferred to use them instead. The Army eventually delivered large field showers to the troops, but these, again, were complicated, and did not work.

          The lesson we learned from this was that in the early stages of a major disaster, equipment that requires generated electricity, gasoline or diesel fuel, and large amounts of water will not be able to function. Keep the equipment simple, rugged, and very basic. That is what works in the real world.

For the Professional in Government and Industry with an interest in Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense, Disarmament and Verification; Emergency and Disaster Medical Planning; Industrial Health and Safety; and Environmental Protection

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