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An ongoing disaster stemming from neglect

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Winter


For Roberto Johansson, M.D., Ph.D., Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that didn’t have to happen. During a talk at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in October, he described what he saw in his hometown of New Orleans. “Roads were out. Telephone lines were out. The fire department broke down. EMS totally broke down. The hospitals were marginal at best,” he said.

But a long history of neglect—of the levees, of the city’s schools and of the city’s poor—compounded the problem, he said. And the order to evacuate came late. “Many of the people that stayed couldn’t get out because they were medically disabled or poor,” he said, noting that doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers stayed on their jobs.

Disasters, he said, follow five stages. First comes knowledge of a possible disaster, followed by a warning phase. Then comes impact. In the rescue phase first responders try to save lives, and those outside the strike zone mobilize to help. The recovery phase, in which New Orleans finds itself, tries to keep survivors at a functioning level.

“Katrina,” he said, “is a story that must not be forgotten.”