Taking lessons from Katrina to heart

Published May 11, 2007

When I told my friends I was going to New Orleans for the annual convention of the American College of Cardiology recently, they warned me "Don't go there. They are still cleaning up. The crime rate is high and there is too much pollution."

I presume they said it with good intentions, looking out for my welfare. But, I thought, if more than a half-million people lived through one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States, the least I can do is to encourage them in rebuilding the city by providing a few tourist dollars.

I am glad I did.

The first banner that greets you at the New Orleans airport is "We are jazzed that you are here!" I would see that many more times in other places; it was the catch phrase for "welcome to the city." While waiting for the baggage, a group of musicians entertained us with a mini jazz concert. The amiable shuttle bus driver carrying our delegates added, "We are delighted you are here; we were worried many of you wouldn't show up."

Later, Steven Nissen, M.D., president of the American College of Cardiology, would echo the same sentiments in his opening plenary session: "Your presence means a lot to the city. We can use every little help as we try to restore New Orleans to its glory."

This gathering was by far the most prestigious of all cardiology conventions in the world, with a great international presence and registration topping 30, 000. There are many simultaneous learning sessions, touching on recent advances in this field.

Although I am an avid fan of listening to all the results of late-breaking clinical trials and discussion of new drugs and procedures for improving cardiovascular care, the symposium I specifically wanted to attend was "Katrina, Lessons Learned." Since we are approaching hurricane season in Florida, I thought this would be very useful.

A joint presentation by the Oschner Clinic and Cleveland Clinic gave snapshots of "Surviving Katrina - Pre, Post and Current Realities." The graphic PowerPoint presentations of how the disaster unfolded, and how, in spite of advance planning, so many things went wrong and numerous lives were lost, were truly mind-boggling.

An emergency disaster team was prepared ahead of time to take care of hospitalized patients and staff the emergency departments, but they did not realize they wouldn't be going home after 24 hours, which is the usual pattern in most disasters.

More than 1, 600 patients from two major hospitals had to be evacuated quickly. The final statistics were staggering: Nearly 2, 000 lives lost, 780, 000 displaced, 200, 000 houses lost, 18, 000 businesses perished. Only 253, 000 of the displaced have come back to the city. I speculate bureaucracy is the juggernaut slowing the progress.

Later I went on a tour, "Post Katrina New Orleans." Our driver took us to the Ninth Ward, the most affected parish, where rebuilding efforts haven't really begun. Yes, the area looked devastated, desolate and gloomy. Skeletons of some of the beautiful houses stood here and there, vestiges of the old glory, silently telling their stories.

"There is not enough manpower and resources, so they are trying to bring work forces from Mexico and Honduras. Many from here have relocated, promising never to return. Isn't that sad?" our driver said. "The No. 1 lesson in survival, " he reminded us, "is to go and help somebody. Don't worry about yourself; this will help you heal faster. Everybody needs everybody."

It certainly made sense.

Springtime in the Crescent City usually means a lot of celebrations. The upscale part of the city around the World Trade Center and the five-star hotels is already back on its feet and running. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, one of the biggest in the world, stretching over seven city blocks and home to evacuees during the hurricane, is completely repaired.

The French Quarter, synonymous with jazz festivals, parades, sidewalk performers, delicious food and gaiety, is trying to regain its charm. However, the glitter, glamor, music and dance were subdued; there were fewer tourists in the shops, fewer jazz players on the roadside.

The River Walk was crowded enough, but business wasn't brisk. The levy that broke and exponentially compounded the floods is still not rebuilt.

Although attendance at the cardiology conference was lower than expected, this was indeed a successful convention with many new arterial imaging tools to assess atherosclerosis exhibited, new drugs introduced, latest clinical trials' results unveiled and new paradigms to improve risk prediction and treat heart diseases with precision presented. The future of heart patients is looking better every year.

And let us hope the future of New Orleans also will be bright.

M.P. Ravindra Nathan is a Brooksville cardiologist. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.