By Fred Rodriguez, MD
President, Board of Directors
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina attacked the city of New Orleans, and due to structural failures of the levee system because of inept construction, 80 percent of the city flooded. My laboratory at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, the LSU School of Medicine, Department of Pathology, and the LSU School of Allied Health, Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences were all significantly, adversely impacted by Katrina and the flooding.
When disaster and adverse events occur, individuals often ask “why do bad things happen to good people”. What must be realized however is that individuals, for the most part, have no control over what happens to them. What individuals always control however is “what do good people do when bad things happen to them”.
In reacting to disaster, one can experience anger, despair, or depression. One may try, but one cannot deny or bargain away that something adverse has happened. Recovery can only begin once one accepts the situation, and begins to develop a plan for recovery. It is individual action that gets recovery started. Inertia accomplishes nothing.
The impact of a disaster can certainly be mitigated by advance planning. Hurricanes are not unique events to affect New Orleans. Indeed, we had been through numerous near misses in the years leading up to Katrina. What had not been planned for however was the extent and significance of the flood. Vulnerabilities were also revealed in emergency generator electrical services, communications, and other utilities.
In the immediate post hurricane period, the first phase of recovery was the rescue of staff, the securing of records, security of the physical plant to prevent theft and vandalism, and the provision of relief for individuals displaced from work and home. Of urgency were efforts to account for all staff and students, and to obtain contact information to establish communication.
Mitigation of damage to structure followed, and had to be accomplished before anything could be reoccupied. Due to the extent of damage, the slow removal of flood waters, the prolonged loss of electrical service, access to begin mitigation was slow taking weeks to begin. Eventually however, temporary facilities were opened, staff and students returned, operations were reinitiated, and recovery was underway.
It has been eight years since Katrina. The LSU School of Medicine and the School of Allied Health have fully recovered, by the VA lab is still in temporary quarters. A new VA hospital is under construction, but will not open until the fall of 2016.
Katrina taught me that any plan is perfect until an event happens, and then individuals must be creative and must adapt to address what the plan did not anticipate. Every plan must be revised and improved post event based on lesson learned.
Katrina also taught me that the knowledge, training, experience, and spirit of laboratory professionals allow them to confront, manage, and resolve extremely complex technical and logistical situations. Quality of care and quality of educational experience drive the actions of laboratory professionals in the recovery from disaster. Good people “do good” when bad things happen to them, but I would never volunteer, or wish a “Katrina experience” on my worst enemy. “Readiness, Rescue, Relief, Recovery, and Review” are the five key phases of dealing with disasters.