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Health and Safety Consultants Head South in Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Total devastation can be a difficult image to conjure up on one’s mind. The pictures on television and in newspapers could show us what Hurricane Katrina left in her wake, but until you are on the ground it’s hard to appreciate what total devastation really looks like. Tina Fehringer, a consultant with the Health and Safety Consultation Program at Colorado State University, arrived in New Orleans on Sunday, Oct. 30, and is getting a first-hand look at what total devastation means.
Fehringer is one of five consultants from the program who will be heading down to the destruction zone before the end of the year to assist in clean-up efforts that must be completed before rebuilding can begin. The group, operating under the auspices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is part of a larger National Response Plan coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Our part in this really started after 9/11 when we received a call from OSHA asking us to help out with worker health and safety at the World Trade Center site which, at the time, was probably one of the most hazardous work sites on the planet,” said Del Sandfort, Director of the Health and Safety Consultation Program housed within the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “A health and safety program was developed real-time, but the lessons we learned became a part of the National Response Plan to be implemented in the case of another disaster, either manmade or natural.”
The National Response Plan incorporates a series of annexes which can be activated when necessary. The Worker Safety and Health Annex was activated following Hurricane Katrina allowing for the release of FEMA funds to support worker health and safety programs. CSU’s Safety and Health Program received a formal document requesting available and willing individuals to sign up, list their expertise, and give available dates. They also needed additional immunizations against diseases of concern in a disaster area. The entire staff of the Colorado State program signed up to help out.
“Tina was the first from our program to be deployed, and she went to New Orleans, but we won’t know where we are going until just before we go,” said Sandfort. “Rick Cook and Brit Todd are heading out during Thanksgiving, and myself and Greg Gress will be gone during the Christmas holiday. We get assignments quarterly, so I imagine we’ll have new assignments in December for the first quarter of 2006.”
Team members are deployed for two weeks at a time. FEMA provides housing (Fehringer is staying at a functioning Holiday Inn near the French Quarter, which survived the storm relatively intact), transportation, and food service, and covers all costs associated with the team’s deployment. For Fehringer, upon arrival, she had to complete a 12-hour training course in potential hazards including snakes, alligators and spiders, as well as chemical and pathogenic hazards. For example, Freon is becoming a greater concern because of damaged and leaking refrigeration units. Freon can create an oxygen deficient atmosphere for workers trying to clean up devastated structures.
“After training, each team is assigned to a certain sector and they spend their day in the sector looking for hazards, assessing conditions, and aiding the contractors,” said Sandfort. “They are working with the demolition crews helping people do their jobs and giving them technical advice on how to protect themselves. It certainly is a different scenario than what we dealt with in New York City, but some of the hazards are the same – debris removal, chemical contamination, large machinery operation and respiratory concerns.”
Sandfort has heard from Fehringer a couple of times since she arrived in New Orleans. What seemed to strike her was how normal things appeared at the airport when she arrived and then slowly driving into the hurricane’s ground zero – no people, foundations with no homes, vegetation stripped bare or uprooted, and mile after mile of total devastation.