Just four months before the fifth anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast residents began dealing with another disaster, this time man-made: the BP oil spill. While "spill" is the word most commonly used to describe the massive spewing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), more aptly called it "the Gulf oil catastrophe" in his opening remarks at a June summit to assess the human health effects of the disaster.
Catastrophe—as in: calamity, upheaval, devastation, ruin, misfortune, tragedy, cataclysm. Surely that's a better description of what the people who live in these coastal towns are experiencing. Family livelihoods pursued for generations may no longer be sustainable, local businesses are closing, and oil workers are being laid off; and no one can say what the human health effects will be. Joe Anne Clark, executive director of the Louisiana State Nurses Association, told me people are feeling "lots of frustration because things have been so bad for so long following Katrina, and you don't know who to get mad at." The pace of recovery has been slow. Clark acknowledged that Louisiana had some success in getting federal funding to develop primary care neighborhood health clinics (see this month's AJN Reports), but noted that continuing budget cuts have put tremendous pressure on the health care system.
Last April—before the oil spill—Amnesty International released a report, Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast (http://bit.ly/aXXdHt), that offered a grim picture of the Katrina-hit regions. Among the findings: destroyed public housing hasn't been adequately replaced, leaving thousands homeless; homeowners seeking to rebuild aren't receiving timely disbursement of funds; and access to health care, including mental health care, remains badly compromised, especially for the poor and uninsured.
With the Gulf oil spill, concerns about the health of people in the area have only increased. Local residents and cleanup workers have reported various symptoms, including headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, dizziness, and throat irritation. It's known that disasters can cause rates of depression and other mental health disorders to rise; indeed, despondency over the oil spill and its effects on the local fishing industry may have been a factor in the June suicide of charter boat captain William Allen Kruse.
How bad will it get? AJN asked Linda A. McCauley, dean of Emory University's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing in Atlanta and a participant at the IOM summit, to provide some perspective. (See "Will the BP Oil Spill Affect Our Health?" in this month's Environments and Health.) One problem is that there have been few oil-spill disasters comparable in scale. But consider this: a recent CNN report stated that, two decades after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, a review of health records revealed that "of 11,000 cleanup workers . . . 6,722 of them had gotten sick."
Nurses in the Gulf communities will have their hands full. Ricki R. Garrett, executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association (MNA), told me that following Katrina, nurses' levels of stress, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder increased. Nurses were dealing not only with patients' problems but also with their own—many had lost homes and workplaces. In anticipation of a similar effect, in July, the MNA held a workshop, "Taking Care of You Before Taking Care of Them," to help nurses deal with stress that may be triggered by the Gulf oil spill.
In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there were calls to action enlisting the aid of nurses nationwide and arranging for disaster relief workers and supplies to be sent into stricken areas; such calls won't help the current situation in the Gulf. This disaster is ongoing. Wind and ocean currents continue to spread the oil far from its point of origin. We don't yet know what this spill will mean beyond Gulf coastal communities, or how it will permanently affect the environment; but it's a sure bet that we'll all feel its effects.