I was stranded overnight in a car and then waddled 5 miles through hip deep dirty brown water. This was not in New Orleans last week, but in Bombay, India a month ago when 38 inches of rain fell in one day (Memphis receives 48 inches in a year).
Flooding is common place in the developing world when monsoons, typhoons, and even a tsunami are coupled with poor drainage systems and poor emergency communication systems. Yet, even with all our resources, we could not save thousands of lives and billions of dollars of catastrophic damage as the city of New Orleans filled up like a bath tub on our TV screens.
The question remains – will we be able to control the spread of diseases and illness which are an aftermath of natural disasters?
In the developing world, epidemics of cholera and typhoid which are marked by profuse diarrhea, takes many lives. Other diseases such as hepatitis A, tetanus, and malaria are equally devastating. In addition, rare diseases like leptospirosis, which causes fever, liver and kidney failure, can occur.
The refugees of New Orleans may fall victims to some of these diseases while they may be spared from others. The water flooding the street is not rain water, rather it is sewage water. Drinking it or inadvertently having the water contact the lips or mouth transmits the bacteria and viruses that lead to diarrhea and hepatitis. Cuts on the skin which have contact with this water can lead to tetanus and possible leptospirosis.
Luckily, the displaced citizens of New Orleans will likely be spared from typhoid and cholera, because these are not indigenous to this part of the world.
Given the enormity of the challenge, I believe that in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina we will fare better than other countries, yet New Orleans will be a test the robustness of our public heath system.