On the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — a time of remembrance — the situation in New Orleans, western Louisiana and the rest of the world is very different from 2005 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We certainly anticipated and worried about the possibility of a large hurricane forming around this time of the year, but we remained hopeful that it would not happen. We were concerned about how a preparedness plan would be implemented, especially one that would keep the people safe from COVID-19 during necessary evacuations with sanitizing, masks and social distancing. We also wondered about how people, especially those with fewer resources, would travel and stay safe.
The city and state made plans for evacuation ahead of the 2020 hurricane season. However, the invisible danger of COVID-19, compounded by a major hurricane, at times, felt like too much to accept. It saddened us to think about the possibility of our city, with such a strong spirit for life exemplified by music, wonderful food and many festivals, could once again be devastated by a massive hurricane.
Going into this next storm season, we knew that because of COVID-19, we would not be able to reach out to people directly to provide effective hurricane recovery. At the same time, local government and school officials have been gearing up to reopen schools and give children the full education they need, but these efforts could be upended in the wake of powerful hurricanes and a pandemic.
Should a hurricane hit New Orleans now, we worry about the social and psychological implications it would have on the city’s citizens, and those living in surrounding areas. It was a lengthy process, but New Orleans has worked to recover since Hurricane Katrina struck. While some fared better, the economic situation for some — specifically for lower income, Black communities — has not returned to the level before Katrina. Further, COVID-19 has demonstrated socioeconomic and health inequities; African Americans face a higher death rate from the novel coronavirus than other racial/ethnic groups.
While tentative plans have been made in the event that evacuations are required, we've hoped that it would not be needed due to the fear of additional deaths from the spread of COVID-19. The anxiety level grew when Hurricane Laura entered the Gulf of Mexico late last week — just a few days from the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — and rapidly intensified.
Forecasts had predicted that Tropical Storm Marco and Hurricane Laura were heading toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, which essentially meant New Orleans would be in their path. It seemed that at least some of the population had “run out of energy” to think of dealing with a massive hurricane and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given our experience with hurricane preparedness, response and recovery, we wondered whether an evacuation — an often standard operating procedure — would be implemented given that it might be difficult to meet COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. As we all know, Hurricane Laura spared New Orleans. It did not, however, spare western Louisiana. Gov. John Bel Edwards (R) called for an evacuation ahead of the hurricane and his administration also implemented a safety plan that attempted to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Regardless, Hurricane Laura swept through much of the state, leaving behind destruction and a number of deaths.
We, like many others since Hurricane Katrina, have more anxiety related to hurricane season, especially this year. Based on our earlier work, we know that the mental health impact of major hurricanes is significant, with both adults and children reporting high incidences of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress. The dual impact of COVID-19 and a major hurricane would be of great concern. For example, not being able to reach out to individuals directly in their homes or in shelters would greatly interfere with the ability to help provide support during a response. If you've ever lived through a hurricane, you know that part of hurricane recovery entails being able to be with friends and family for support, which is difficult to do when there’s a risk of spreading COVID-19.
Our hope is that New Orleans will be spared having to go through the “double whammy” of a major hurricane, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated. We also hope that we will soon see the New Orleans that we know — a wonderful, vibrant and resilient city — recover again when the pandemic is finally controlled.
Joy D. Osofsky, Ph.D., is a professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, the Ramsay Chair of psychiatry and professor of Child Welfare at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.
Howard J. Osofsky, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Bricker chair of Psychiatry at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.