Campus & Community

Hurricane Katrina

4 min read

Up close and personal

The following are excerpts from accounts that appear online. For more information, visit

‘Injuries continue to mount’

“After traveling to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, early in the relief effort for the tsunami, I never imagined that I would face this kind of devastation and despair on American soil. When I compare Katrina to the tsunami, the first thing that strikes me is the incredible resilience and response of humanity to this kind of unprecedented destruction, and how the human spirit is so similar and so enduring in these two countries, separated by 10,000 miles and generations of culture. Sadly, the similarity is most evident, though, in the utter loss of those who have survived. It is this loss that will be experienced the longest and hardest by the Katrina victims, in some ways so much worse than the tsunami. The tsunami killed so many instantly. The hurricane and ensuing flood injured many instantly, but the injuries continue to mount. More and more, we will be trying to cope with the injuries to the basic health status of the chronically ill, like the diabetics and the elderly, and the injuries to the mental health of those whose entire lives vanished in a torrent of wind and water.

Related links:
University opens heart (and doors) in the wake of devastating Katrina
Displaced students make a home at Harvard
Katrina teach-in seeks lessons from disaster
Learn more about what is happening at Harvard regarding the aftermath of Katrina

Deadline for Harvard donation match (up to $100): Oct. 15

“The shelters are incredibly variable, from the thousands in sports complexes (picture the TD BankNorth Garden with people in cots right where you would expect to buy a hot dog) to a few dozen in a high school gym or a handful in a VFW house. The shelters almost have a sense of involuntary confinement about them, for there is nowhere for anyone to go at this point. Tents are all over outside, people are sleeping in their cars with their pets near the shelters, so they can go in to use the bathrooms and get some food.”

– Hilarie Cranmer, emergency physician at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Lives reduced to rubble

“There was a 30-foot storm surge here, and when the ocean rushed back, it took a lot of things with it. Now, when the tide goes out, it reveals cars, tractors, and pieces of buildings like McDonald’s scattered in the sand. The storm surge was sort of like the December tsunami – but add 150 mph winds. Whatever you are seeing on TV, the devastation is worse. There are 40-foot piles of rubble lined up along the streets, like snowbanks after a big winter storm in Massachusetts, but the rubble is made of people’s property. The piles are what made people’s lives.”

– Joshua Frances, program coordinator at the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Public Health Preparedness

Hospitals flooded but functioning

“I have several friends who worked in the hospitals there – flooded and functioning for six days without running water, electricity, in nonsterile conditions, hand-bagging ICU patients at times and desperately not knowing when or how evacuation would come. And I complain being post-call. My immediate family is safe having evacuated to Baton Rouge. My grandparents’ house was destroyed, and the house I grew up in is flooded. We haven’t been able to locate a great aunt who told us she was too old to evacuate and then right before the storm said it was too late. Unfortunately, all this pales in comparison to the loss of most.”

– Kelly Vallance, pediatric resident at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital for Children

We must transcend personal blame

“Tragically, the few officials on the scene became terrified by the hordes of desperate people who confronted them. This was outside the experience of decision makers, who became overwhelmed further by the size and scope of the growing disaster and the seeming impossibility of regaining control. So, like a computer that stops working, the system froze, unable to accomplish the most basic of humanitarian efforts. These failures are a function of a complex interplay of the many government agencies and community leaders responsible for decision making and action. The problem cannot in its entirety be attached to one organization or one leader. Just as our colleagues working on patient safety assert that to improve the quality of health care, we must transcend beyond personal blame toward a careful assessment of systems issues, so too must we look at the systems problems surrounding this disaster.”

– Leonard Marcus, Lecturer on Public Health Practice, Harvard School of Public Health