Hurricane Katrina: A tragic case study in contamination prevention, control and remediation

By Douglas K. Theobald, C.F.M

Recently an acquaintance of mine sent me a series of spectacular photographs of hurricane Katrina as it edged along its somewhat indiscriminate yet determined route, making landfall at several locations along the way. The hurricane progressed from the Florida panhandle, along the Gulf coast, up through Mississippi, and across into Louisiana. I was struck at how vivid the contrasting colors of the landscape appeared beneath the stark and overwhelming expanse of the storm clouds with their ashen-gray to charcoal-black shades, looming in an ominous and threatening mass above the landscape. Although we knew it was possible and had even been warned, we hoped it wouldn’t happen. We had, to an extent, been prepared, but because of the unknown factors, the preparation was inadequate. The seemingly stable, predictable and “controlled” nature of things has been altered by the unknown and unexpected.

The magnifying glass

An event the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina is an amplified case study of what can happen when the unforeseen meets the unprepared. I am in no way trivializing the human factor, the devastation and the ongoing suffering of those affected by this catastrophic event. My own family members who have lived in New Orleans for the past twenty years will attest to this, as they struggle with the emotional, physical and psychological affects of piecing together the remnants of their homes and lives on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. As we look at the cause and effect of this enormous “excursion,” we need to view the challenge in both its human and technological aspects.

My world, my work and my research, as with most who will read this, are driven daily by standards, planned goals and achieved (or expectations of achieving) predetermined results. At this point what we have is a disaster or, as I stated above, an excursion. We must investigate how this came to be and make a determination of how we can remediate the situation while implementing solutions to ensure our success in the future and limit the potential for failure, defects and repeating the same mistakes. In the case of the devastation of a hurricane, the cost to do it right the second time is hundreds of billions of dollars. Is there any question that it would have been considerably less costly to “do it right” the first time? Although in technological industries the dollar amount may be less, the proportion is the same and the lesson is the same. As a professional and an individual, I have concerns regarding planning (both financial and logistical), selection of location, methods of construction, adequate allotment and controls for maintenance and procedures, and finally-the main point of this discussion-remediation of contamination.


Currently in the Gulf coast region, there are some very serious issues with regard to contamination of surface and ground water, structural materials and airborne (even molecular) contamination or AMC. The photograph that appears in this article is typical of the affected area (see Fig. 1). It represents approximately one square meter of surface area. There are several types of as-yet-unidentified visible molds (samples of those pictured are being sent for analysis) literally flourishing in a region that is humid, warm and abundant in naturally occurring strains of bacteria.

Figure 1. Photograph of interior wallboard where visible mold has flourished under warm, humid conditions. Photo courtesy of Deborah Theobald.
Click here to enlarge image

Removal of damaged building materials is essential, despite the fact that in many cases there are not adequate services to remove the debris farther than just a few meters from businesses, residences and manufacturing facilities. Additionally we are not dealing in this case with a controlled, enclosed environment. As the clean-up efforts progress, the natural process is to demolish and remove damaged (and potentially contaminated) materials. If the process is not performed correctly, mold spores and bacteria will become airborne. This airborne contamination can be carried by turbulence in the air or wind and attach itself to susceptible areas on humans (and animals), typically the eyes, ears, nose and mucous membranes in the sinuses and respiratory system. Under normal circumstances, the human body is equipped to fight off infections from low levels of common molds, spores, bacteria, etc. However, at higher levels of concentration, and if per chance there are uncommon strains of infectious contaminants, the human immune system may not be able to neutralize or rapidly process the contaminants. This can cause infection, respiratory problems, disease or even death, especially in the case of the elderly or people with even mildly deficient immune systems. This concern is accelerated in the case of exposure of open wounds to potentially infectious material.

Prior to attempting to remove damaged building materials and debris, the contamination should be analyzed to determine the appropriate neutralizing agent to use for treatment. The potential contamination should be neutralized wherever possible. It would be advisable, if possible, to use a strong cleaning agent, one that has a combination of sporicidal, bactericidal, virucidal, fungicidal and germicidal capabilities. This should be something such as a blend of peracetic acid, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid. At the very least, there are many germicides and cleaners available that could be used. However, someone needs to provide guidance. Again this is an opportunity for agencies that are trained to evaluate and respond to conditions of this nature to take charge and direct the efforts.

Along with warnings regarding potential exposure, we need to provide more detailed information on the use of protective clothing and equipment. This is not your typical yard clean-up project. Individuals planning to return to the area to perform clean-up must prepare for the remediation process. Safety equipment is essential. This again is where the managing agencies that have been designated as responsible for disaster recovery should publish and inform individuals of the proper procedures and preparedness strategies. They should be instructed to use mold-inhibiting respirators, protective outer clothing, gloves and safety goggles (not glasses). If demolition is going to be performed, it is advisable to use heavy, tear-resistant gloves to prevent sustaining wounds that may become infected. In the case of disinfecting potential contamination, latex gloves should be adequate. However, as with all protective clothing it is essential to change often and treat discarded items as potentially contaminated. Contaminated materials, as much as possible, should be treated as potential hazardous waste by double-bagging the debris and placing it in centrally located and identified locations for removal.

Who should respond?

In the rush to restore normalcy, many people are returning to this environment to begin clean-up and reconstruction without the most critical tool: an understanding of what they are dealing with and how to prevent sickness and disease.

The federal government, and in particular the Center for Disease Control, needs to make a strong showing by taking part in managing the identification of the contamination in the area, providing guidelines for controlling the spread of contamination and providing clear and complete instructions to the general public in the affected areas. We need to hear more about what is being done to ensure the health and safety of individuals who are being encouraged to “return and rebuild.”

Ultimately, if we ask ourselves who can help, my answer is we can. We are the professionals in the contamination control industries, we are the people that deal with the same issues on a variety of scales of magnitude each day and we are also often the ones who have elected, appointed and hired “competent” individuals to manage the agencies and organizations responsible for responding to disasters small or large. We must provide information that is critical to the initial response and that takes into consideration the long-term ramifications of the type and quality of our response. The process of recovery must be carefully managed with controls in place to prevent the proliferation of potentially hazardous contamination.

Douglas K. Theobald has been a professional in the construction and cleanroom industries for over twenty-five years. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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