Working in the New Orleans toxic
As head of a crew tearing out carpet, furnishings, and drywall from
New Orleans homes and businesses, Devon Seymour has seen the worst
of Katrina's aftermath.
But for Seymour, the dried muck, rampant mold, and other crud he
and his three workers encounter aren't as onerous as an invisible
scourge: the smell. At one Burger King where boxes of burgers lay
rotting in powerless, stifling freezers, it was so bad that he and
the others could barely finish the tear-out.
After cutting into a cafeteria meat locker, a HazMat team
removes rotten meat from an elementary school freezer that lost
power during Hurricane Katrina.
"Even with the respirator, I actually threw up at least one time
there," says Seymour, who relocated from Miami to New Orleans after
the storm. "We lost a couple of guys easy on that project because
the stench was just unbearable."
As the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina's August landfall seeped
out of New Orleans, several organizations raised concerns about
toxins, mold, and other hazards left behind. Although the concern
centered on returning residents, those engaged in demolition and
renovation arguably faced the greatest risk. But as of late
December, little was known about the extent of that risk and what
sort of health problems it might have already caused or would cause
in the future. And what information did exist was frequently the
subject of disagreement between environmental and health advocates
on one side and federal and state officials on the other.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration,
among other agencies, had publicized safety measures for workers in
New Orleans. But it is far from clear that contractors or employees
know or follow them consistently.
"No one has given us guidelines," says Jack DeGeorge, co-owner of
All American Builders and Remodelers. He requires his dozen workers
to wear rubber gloves, boots, and respirators when common sense
seems to warrant it, but says he thinks any danger is
Within weeks of the storm, the National Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) was warning of a "toxic chaos" in New Orleans either being
ignored or minimized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The NRDC
says its sampling of the sediment left on streets and sidewalks
revealed dangerous levels of arsenic as well as carcinogenic
hydrocarbons and organic chemicals. By contrast, the EPA and DEQ
maintained that — with the notable exception of a St. Bernard
Parish neighborhood near the Murphy Oil spill — arsenic and
other toxin levels were typical for older cities and similar to
those that existed pre-Katrina.
"… If people avoid obvious signs of hazardous material,
practice good personal hygiene, and use common sense, exposure to
the environment should not cause any long-term health effects,"
concludes a December 9 press release by a multi-agency task force
said to reflect conditions of more than 1,000 outdoor environmental
But indoor toxins — those that workers are more likely than
others to repeatedly encounter — may be more problematic. The
EPA didn't test indoors, arguing that private homes were not within
its jurisdiction. The NRDC did its own limited tests for mold,
measuring spore counts in eight homes, including some untouched
since the flood and others partially or fully "remediated" with,
for example, carpet
and drywall removed.
In the untouched and partially remediated homes, the NRDC found
average counts of 650,000 and 350,000 spores per cubic meter,
respectively. That's way above the "very high" standard of 50,000
spores per cubic meter as determined by the National Allergy
Bureau, says Patrice Simms, a NRDC lawyer. Fully remediated homes,
meanwhile, had counts of at least 60,000, also high but comparable
to outside air in New Orleans, Simms says. But as bad as the
numbers sound, "there is no regulatory framework for mold, so there
are no standards per se," Simms explains.
He adds that although the NRDC didn't test sediment in homes,
toxins in outdoor sediment would also be present indoors. "Anybody
involved with the remediation of these buildings is going to be
coming into contact with those toxins," Simms notes.
With thousands of workers doing demolition and reconstruction since
October, it might seem that toxin- or mold-induced health problems
would already be obvious. But despite reports of a ubiquitous
"Katrina cough" among both workers and residents, authorities have
yet to tally the most common injuries sustained by construction
workers, much less any pattern of sicknesses or health
"We do not have numbers on the respiratory tract irritation," says
Louisiana state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard in a brief e-mail. "It
is all mixed with people who have colds and other respiratory
Seymour, DeGeorge, and others involved with the cleanup on a daily
basis seem to report only minor problems. "The ones who had the
Katrina cough had that cleared up by antibiotics," says Dennis
Roubion, president of Roubion Construction, a New Orleans-based
firm of about 50 workers.
Roubion adds that he had just paid his annual workers' comp bill
— and that the amount didn't differ from last year's prestorm
bill. — Aaron Hoover
A vision to pull devastated coastal towns
out of the current dark age
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed a third of the city, but
the disaster literally cleared the way for the wide boulevards,
parks, and skyscrapers Chicago is known for today.
Mississippi officials hope for a similar transformation of 120
miles of shoreline left in tatters by Hurricane Katrina. Just as
adherents of an architectural movement called the City Beautiful
remade the windy city, Mississippi's planners are turning to one
called New Urbanism. They've recruited the movement's father, Miami
architect Andrés Duany, to spearhead an extensive statewide
planning effort for reconstruction of 11 coastal cities damaged by
Bright optimism. New Urbanism, which
emphasizes pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with mixed living and
retail space, shuns sprawl and big-box strips. For Duany, Katrina's
aftermath presents an opportunity to realize the vision on an
otherwise unthinkable regional scale. Says Duany of the cities,
"There's a tendency for the ones that are less destroyed to be more
optimistic, and I think it should be the reverse. Those that are
most destroyed should be most hopeful."
The task, of course, will not be easy. For starters, there's no
regional consensus on the New Urbanism approach, much less the
particulars — despite, or perhaps because of, an extensive
effort by the group pushing it, the Governor's Commission on
Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal. Last fall in Biloxi, the
commission held a six-day meeting, the Mississippi Renewal Forum,
to iron out the main ideas. With major support from the Congress
for the New Urbanism, well over 100 planners, architects, and
designers attended. Specialists later fanned out to work with
residents to craft city-specific plans.
Gulfport City Council President Barbara Nalley loves the results.
With a prestorm population of 71,000, the largest of Mississippi's
Gulf Coast cities reported damage to at least 80% of its commercial
and residential buildings. Nalley likes, for example, the
commission's proposed extension of Gulfport downtown to the harbor
area south of Interstate 90, including a "seaside promenade worthy
of Monte Carlo."
"We were going to revitalize our harbor and port area anyway before
the storm," she says. "What they've presented to us are even better
ideas than what we had in mind."
Some skepticism. Others aren't as swept
away. Richard Notter, an alderman on the Long Beach board, says he
likes some specifics of the plan but is wary of its approach. "They
talk about walkable areas, and that's wonderful in the Northeast,"
he says, "but in the South it's very, very hot and people don't
want to walk around outside."
New Urbanism, modeled after the downtowns of yesteryear, is often
identified with historic architectural styles. To evangelize the
look, the commission put together A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast
Neighborhoods. The book gives advice on how, facing the chore of
rebuilding nearly 70,000 destroyed homes statewide, homeowners can
recreate their new homes in Mississippi's traditional architectural
styles. But Notter has no plans to force aesthetic guidelines on
his devastated constituents. "In the South, we're really more in
touch with property rights," he says.
Or as Pass Christian native Billy Bourdin, 77, the
second-generation owner of Bourdin Brothers Plumbing and Heating,
puts it, "I think they ought to let us go back and do what the hell
Looming forces. Ultimately, the question
of whether the New Urbanism plans become a reality will probably
depend on how they stack up with other major forces shaping the
reconstruction. Looming large are new Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) advisory flood maps for all three of Mississippi's
coastal counties. The maps comprise the largest proposed expansion
of flood zones in the National Flood Insurance Program's 37-year
history, says Todd Davison, FEMA's regional manager for mitigation.
Extending as far as 22 miles inland, the maps could prompt
thousands of residents either to rebuild formerly ground-level
homes on pilings or further elevate homes already in the air before
By reaching back to the rich architectural heritage of the
devastated Gulf Coast, architect and community planner
Andrés Duany hopes to avoid reconstructing what he claims to
be unexceptional, even tawdry, development of the last 30
Davison notes that the maps — which different cities have
already moved to reject, approve, or modify — and New
Urbanism are not mutually exclusive. But, he says, "I think the
element of risk is going to have to define land-use
Numerous other major forces stand to influence the reconstruction
as well. One widely endorsed governor's commission proposal
suggests moving the east-west CSX Transportation railroad north so
that it no longer bisects coastal communities. But as CSX repaired
bridges and crossings, there was no sign that was going to happen.
"They still own the tracks, and they are planning to run trains
down those tracks," says Notter.
Duany is pragmatic, saying many of the architects and planners who
count as its most influential supporters already have enough on
their hands rebuilding their homes and cities. Some communities
will run with the plans; others won't, he predicts. "There are
hundreds of thousands of buildings down," he says. "And the very
best people are very busy. So yeah, it's going to be difficult."
After suffering losses totaling an estimated $60 billion due to
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma this past year, insurance
companies are expected to raise premiums in devastated areas.
Allstate and State Farm have already won approvals for home
insurance rate increases in Florida averaging roughly 9%. These
average rate increases mean that some homeowners may see premium
hikes of more than 40%, according to November reports in the
Insurance Journal. Allstate is now in arbitration seeking
an even higher increase of 18% in Florida and has indicated it
would seek rate increases in other states devastated by last year's
storms. Insurance analysts say the rate increases follow not so
much from the cost of claims as from the rising cost of reinsurance
(the insurance for insurance companies). Last year, reinsurance
infused more than $20 billion in capital for U.S. insurance
companies to use for handling the claims. This money may have
actually put the property-casualty industry as a whole in the black
for 2005, despite its heavy losses. But, according to reports in
CNN/Money, analysts admit that insurers have a
"psychological advantage" that favors raising premium
Finishing off one of the most active hurricane seasons in history,
Tropical Storm Zeta — the 27th major storm for the year
— formed in the eastern Atlantic in late December. Zeta is
the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, which has been used to
identify storms since forecasters ran out of names on this year's
official list of 21. The number of names selected for the storms
for this past year was based on the most active previous year,
1933, when there were 21 storms. The year 2005 marks the first time
there have been more than 21 named storms in 154 years of