Flood Infections Kill Four

By Joyce Howard Price
Published September 8, 2005

Four persons have died in what federal health officials think was likely a bacterial infection circulating in Hurricane Katrina's contaminated floodwaters in New Orleans, and new EPA tests show the water is full of sewage and lead.

Environmental Protection Agency Director Stephen L. Johnson said yesterday that the amount of E. coli and coliform, a bacterium found in sewage, in the water was at least 10 times EPA's recommended levels. Lead levels in the water also were elevated, he said.

"Human contact with the floodwaters should be avoided as much as possible ... and no one should drink the floodwaters, especially children," Mr. Johnson said at a press conference, where he released testing data for post-hurricane water samples collected daily since Friday from residential sections of New Orleans.

Mr. Johnson was joined by Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who said it was essential for anyone remaining in New Orleans to leave as soon as possible because of the dangers posed by the floodwaters.

Police and soldiers in New Orleans used the warnings to try to coax the last 10,000 or so holdouts to leave the city.

"A large group of young armed men armed with M-16s just arrived at my door and told me that I have to leave," said Patrick McCarty, who lives in the city's Lower Garden District. "While not saying they would arrest you, the inference is clear."

Although Mayor C. Ray Nagin had authorized the use of force, there were no reports of anyone being forced to leave.

Active-military troops said they had no plans to use force. National Guard officers said they do not take orders from the mayor. And even the police said they were not ready to use force. It appeared that the mere threat of force would be the first option.

"We have thousands of people who want to voluntarily evacuate at this time," said Police Superintendent Eddie Compass. "Once they are all out, then we'll concentrate our forces on mandatory evacuation."

The stepped-up evacuation came as workers trying to get into the city to restart essential services came under sniper fire. More than 100 officers and seven armored personnel carriers captured a suspect in a housing project who had been firing on workers trying to restore cell phone towers, authorities said.

The floodwaters in the city continued to recede, though slowly, with 23 of the usual 148 pumps in operation, along with three portable pumps.

Because of the standing water, doctors were being urged to watch for water-borne illnesses.

At the press conference, Dr. Gerberding briefly discussed five cases -- four fatal -- of the waterborne bacterial infection Vibrio vulnificus.

Four of the cases involved hurricane victims in Mississippi, three of whom died. An evacuee from Louisiana died in Texas, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

"Vibro vulnificus is a germ that's found [year-round] in the warm Gulf Coast waters and that is usually spread by eating contaminated food," said Von Roebuck, another CDC spokesman. "But this germ can penetrate open wounds.

We guess these people got infected as they walked through polluted standing water."

CDC officials say they cannot predict whether there will be many more deaths from this infection, which primarily strikes the elderly and those who are immune-compromised.

"But we certainly won't be surprised if we see more cases," Mr. Skinner said.

Dr. Gerberding took issue with some press accounts that have compared Vibrio vulnificus with highly infectious cholera.

"It's not cholera. It's not spread person to person," she said.

Interviewed yesterday on NBC's "Today," the CDC director was asked whether pumping water that contains feces and dead bodies from the streets of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain will cause long-term damage to the lake.

"It's not likely to have any long-term impact on the lake," Dr. Gerberding said. "This is the kind of thing that happens anytime it floods, even if the bacteria are coming from pastures instead of the kind of sewage problem we're having in New Orleans."

Despite all the warnings about unsafe conditions, some residents refused to leave the city.

In the high and dry French Quarter, 48-year-old Jack Jones said he would resist if authorities tried to force him out of the home where he has lived since the 1970s.

Although the streets were strewn with garbage, rotting food and downed power lines, Mr. Jones kept his block pristine, sweeping daily, spraying for mosquitoes and even pouring bleach down drains to kill germs.

He said the sick, the elderly and people who lack supplies should be evacuated -- but not residents like him. He has 15 cases of drinking water, a generator, canned ravioli, wine, coffee and three cartons of Marlboros.

"I've got everything I need," Mr. Jones said. "I just want to be left alone."