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Louisiana's Hurricane Preparedness


When forecasters predicted Hurricane Harvey would slam into the U.S. Gulf Coast, Louisiana braced and braced hard. They built shelters. State employees went on 12-hour shifts. Days before the storm hit, Louisiana's Department of Health redeployed its public health staff to disaster response mode. They were lucky this time. Harvey weakened as it turned north.

Dr. Rebekah Gee, who leads the department, says the state is much better prepared than it was when Hurricane Katrina struck 12 years ago. Dr. Gee joins us now on the line from New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

REBEKAH GEE: Thanks, Rachel. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. You all must be feeling massively relieved at this point.

GEE: We are. We prepared for the worst, hoped for the best. Either hurricane or rain bands hitting our cities. Most of our residents live in coastal areas - over half our population and most of our medical assets. So we are very, very fortunate. We had a couple hundred homes flood, and some residents had to evacuate. But most of our efforts are focused on our neighbors in Texas.

MARTIN: But do you feel like you were ready? I mean, what changed after Katrina? What lessons were learned from that that informed how you prepared for Harvey?

GEE: Oh, Rachel, so many. We had over 25,000 people evacuated from hospitals and medical facilities in the New Orleans area. And Katrina was the largest medical evacuation in the history of this nation. Almost 2,000 lives were lost. So the folks who worked that storm are still the people who lead my efforts. And they will never let the mistakes happen again that happened during that time. There was not a level of coordination.

Now we have, before the storm, during the storm, even after the storm follow-up, very close contact with each other. We have a single-way point of entry for reporting medical needs. We work very closely with the Coast Guard. We also deploy our assets sooner. We have federal medical shelters, as well as our own Louisiana mega-shelter in Alexandria, that are prepared for events ahead of time. A registry to know where every vulnerable individual is in areas that are affected by floods and storms. So we're much, much more prepared.

MARTIN: So just because Louisiana is out of the woods when it came to Harvey, I mean, your neighbor Texas definitely is not. As you look at Texas, what kind of health risks do you expect there in days and weeks to come?

GEE: Well, certainly, a lot of the health risks are during search and rescue initially and then afterwards cleaning up. There can be electrical lines and folks getting harmed from those, mold, tetanus, all kinds of things for first responders. And then when folks go back into their homes, there's mold.

There are other issues in homes that can cause health risks. People need to wear gloves and make sure that they have properly contacted their health department to make sure there's no dangerous chemicals in the water or in their home. And, of course, mosquitoes - we still have concerns for the Zika virus.

There's no local transmission now. But here in Louisiana, particularly after the storms last year, where we had over 100,000 FEMA claims and massive damage, we worried a lot about mosquitoes and do mosquito counts and look at that. And, finally, mental health - people have lost many in the floods, have lost everything and need to, you know, bring - put their lives back together. So taking mental health breaks and making sure you get help.

MARTIN: I'm sure that's something that even survivors of Hurricane Katrina are still battling with - the mental health effects of enduring a storm like that.

GEE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Dr. Rebekah Gee is the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health. Thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

GEE: Thanks for talking with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "ALBERTO BALSALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.