Gone South: Two local doctors look after health of hurricane survivors

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:56

BILOXI, MISS.-Dr. Marco Pedone walked the streets of Biloxi, Mississippi, looking for a restaurant still open after Hurricane Katrina laid the city to waste. He made two surprising finds. The first was a Thai restaurant, which was handing out menus on regular lined notebook paper. The choices included spaghetti, hamburgers, and chicken fingers. Pedone's second find was even more surprising. In the restaurant was his neighbor Dr. Richard Garfield of Greenwood Lake. The two men are part of a team of experts from Columbia University that went south to help the hurricane survivors. Pedone, who recently moved to Warwick, is an environmental specialist. Garfield is a professor of international nursing and epidemiology who had aided in the tsunami disaster and was now serving as the team's deputy director. The teammates shared a serving of gumbo. "He started telling me he had a place in Greenwood Lake, and the relationship was solidified," Pedone said. "I thought, We can't be this lucky." The group, dubbed Operation Assist, was made up of about 25 to 30 people, including physicians, nurses, environmental health and hazardous materials experts, epidemiologists, and public assistance and ethics experts. Teaming up with Operation Assist was the Children's Health Fund, an organization founded in 1987 by Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician, and singer/songwriter Paul Simon. "The Children's Health Fund had enough pull to get us right in," said Pedone. "We flew down to determine conditions and meet with out counterparts." These included national and regional emergency management and health officials. The team set up mobile units and dispatched medical teams in Biloxi-Gulfport and in Louisiana, where survivors were inoculated for tetanus and hepatitis. Pedone said people tended to mass near certain areas, like Home Depot, where they were buying supplies like tarps and generators. So the team set up a mobile unit in the parking lot of a Home Depot. Pedone was there to assess the extent of contamination and how it was affecting survivors. In all, he said, people in Biloxi are "in pretty good shape." But he was concerned that property owners know about the hazards of asbestos and lead paint as they begin to rebuild. And there are problems with mold and fungi. In addition to giving survivors general medical attention, Pedone gave them five-minute lessons on the hazards of rebuilding. Also on the agenda is testing oil tanks, and testing for mercury, chemicals and asbestos. Pedone is now headed to Seattle, where he will take a disaster training course. He will then go back to the Gulf area to teach local officials what he's learned. Operation Assist will continue to support Biloxi over the next year but said the team's focus has shifted to public health needs in New Orleans. He said reports by an environmental taskforce rated New Orleans, on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the worst, a 3 overall and a 4 for housing. "There is a tremendous need for a warp force to clean New Orleans and the surrounding areas," he said. The Children's Health Fund aims not only to address Katrina's immediate consequences but also to solve the area's long-standing problems of poverty. In addition to rebuilding houses and getting kids back to school, there's the more long-term need to get people working. When Pedone and the Columbia team return to the Gulf area, they'll be working with local unemployment agencies that helping companies in their search for labor. For Pedone and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, this is a learning experience that will help in future emergencies. In July the center released its annual report of disaster preparedness in the United States, from weather-related disasters to terrorist attacks. The report said unpreparedness is seen not only in governmental agencies but also in private families. A Marist College survey found that in an emergency, 57 percent of people would not evacuate their homes or offices even when ordered to do so. Twenty-five percent said they would be unable to leave without help. Pedone teaches environmental health sciences courses at Columbia University. He is also principal technical director of Environmental Management Solutions of New York, Inc. He asks anyone interested in specifically helping children to contact the Children's Health Fund at 212-452-3340 or visit www.chf@childrenshealthfund.org.