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September 2, 2005

Katrina's Aftermath: Disaster Preparedness 

When a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina strikes, people need help with everything from medical care to knowing when they can drink the water again and when it’s safe to return home.

Often, that’s how a community finds out how adequate its public health infrastructure really is. “Your resources may seem fine until you go to war,” says Thomas Burke, PhD, professor of Health Policy and Management. “Hurricane Katrina is the public health equivalent of war. And public health practitioners are on the front line.”

On the Gulf Coast, that front line is setting up shelters, treating the injured, testing the water, safeguarding the food and making decisions about safety, evacuation and reoccupation.

Thomas Burke

Thomas Burke, PhD

“In general, the country is much better prepared to deal with any disaster than we were four years ago,” says Cindy Parker, MD, MPH, a training specialist in the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness. She points to the money the CDC has provided to every state health department for disaster preparedness since Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare. “Disaster preparedness was not something health departments really thought about before, and now they do,” she says. “It varies by region, but most health departments have now done at least some disaster preparedness training.”

Despite progress made in the last four years, “we haven’t really supported public health agencies and many don’t have adequate personnel," says Burke. "And that is absolutely true nationally.” 

When Hurricane Isabel hit Maryland in 2003, a small army of public health professionals from throughout the state got Maryland up and running again. While the response was successful, the infrastructure was stretched to the limit—people came from all over Maryland to help, and there was no dedicated budget for the disaster.

“Despite some of the best-laid plans, we’re not ready for large-scale disasters,” he says. “Where do 30,000 people go to the bathroom in the dark? This is a huge question. And it’s the kind of thing we need public health people to answer.”

More Hurricane Katrina Information

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or