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The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Human Pathogens in Lake Pontchartrain

Colloquium Overview



Saturday, November 18, 2006
Noon to 4pm
Redfield Auditorium
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, MA 02543


The colloquium is open to the public

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States, causing extensive damage to coastal communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.  By late morning of August 29 the storm had caused several sections of the levee system in New Orleans to collapse.  Subsequent flooding over ~80% of the city, much of which lies below sea level, resulted in widespread damage.  By September 6 breaks in the levee system had been repaired and efforts to pump out the floodwaters were underway, with the last of them pumped in mid October of 2005.  The volume of the floodwaters has been estimated at 95 billion liters.  Because of the configuration of the dewatering pumps, most of the water was discharged to Lake Pontchartrain, directly north of the city.  Initial concerns regarding human health safety were related to outbreaks within the city due to the flood waters, and have evolved to include the impact of the dewatering on the lake and the potential for pathogens to persist in dried floodwater sediments. 

The conditions resulting from the tragedy in New Orleans represented a possible “worst case” scenario for contamination of coastal and estuarine waters.  What we learn from the analysis of samples taken there can help us to understand and predict what could happen in other coastal areas.  Based on the characteristics of pollution sources in the flooded areas of New Orleans, it was likely that the floodwaters contained high concentrations of sewage-derived pathogens, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), toxic organic chemicals, and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).  The potential impact of the transfer of this contaminated water to Lake Pontchartrain, both immediate and long term, was unkown.

Three of the recently established National Science Foundation (NSF) - National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) Centers for Oceans and Human Health (Miami, Hawaii and Woods Hole) teamed with researchers at Louisiana State University to study the impact of the New Orleans dewatering operation on the Lake Pontchartrain ecosystem.  The researchers set out to determine the presence, abundance and fate of selected human pathogens and sewage indicators in the water and sediment of Lake Pontchartrain in the weeks and months following floodwater pumping.

These NSF Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) projects have been a highly collaborative effort, in which the sum of the individual research projects can provide a complete picture of the human microbial pathogens in hurricane floodwaters.  The purposes of this colloquium are to:

  • Provide a forum for the SGER researchers to discuss, summarize and present their combined research results to the public.
  • Promote a series of standard rapid response microbial protocols that are derived from the group’s sampling efforts
  • Engage the public in the discussion of public health issues that potentially result from hurricane impacts to the coastal environment.


Speakers and Discussion Panel

Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health
        Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler  Marine Biological Laboratory
        Dr. Rebecca Gast  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Louisiana State University School of the Coast and Environment
        Dr. Aixin Hou
        Dr. Edward Laws, Dean
        Meihuey Tan
        Hee-Sung Bae

Oceans and Human Health Center - University of Miami
        Dr. Maribeth Gidley
        Dr. Lisa Pitman
        Dr. Christopher Sinigalliano
        Dr. Helena Solo-Gabriele

Pacific Research Center for Marine Biomedicine
        Dr. Grieg Steward
        Olivia Nigro
        Gayatri Vithanage

Louisiana State University Hurricane Center
        Dr. Marc Levitan, Director


Colloquium Convener

Dr. Rebecca J. Gast, Biology Department and Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, WHOI

The colloquium is being sponsored by the Elisabeth and Henry Morss, Jr. Colloquia Fund of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  Please contact Bonnie Cormier (bcormier) for further information.

Last updated: September 7, 2007