New Orleans has been a home away from home for many an EHS pro over the years, a favorite meeting place of the American Society of Safety Engineers, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the National Safety Council. In this article, we draw on various news services to reveal the risks encountered on the road to recovery following the country's most tragic health and safety story of 2005, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina that began on the morning of August 29, when the storm made landfall. We’re filing this report on December 22, 2005.

Miles of muck The sludge has dried but the dust is far from settled along the battered parts of the Gulf Coast. The mother of a tenth grade girl attending DeLisle Elementary School on Mississippi's gulf shore described the clouds of dust kicked up as children go from class to class. DeLisle Elementary is packed with 1,200 students in Grades K-12, many from schools not yet reopened. And there's concern the airborne dust contains metals and pathogens from a nearby DuPont chemical plant.

In New Orleans, six schools out of a public school system of 116 are scheduled to be open by the end this month. Before Katrina, 55,000 students attended public schools in the city. Only 4,000 are now registered.

Like the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, New Orleans is a shell of its once lively self. Miles of the city are vacant, dark at night beyond the bright lights of downtown towers. From a population of 450,000, fewer than one in eight — about 60,000 — have returned home.

About 150,000 evacuees from the Gulf Coast remain housed in hotel rooms around the country. More than 21,000 south Mississippi families live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has called for residents to return home. Seventy percent of the city has electricity, he says, and full power should be restored by next month. But the Big Easy is still a big mess. Some local doctors still operate out of tents. Only 50 percent of homes currently have gas service. Only ten percent of the city's buses are running. More than 100,000 homes and business remain unhabitable. Five million tons of storm debris is still on the ground. Curbs are piled high with dry wall and gutted remains of homes.

A student returning home to New Orleans for Thanksgiving from a college in Maine described in his school paper seeing a river barge sitting atop a school bus, and talking to military police parked in a Humvee outside a bar.

Parts of the city on high ground — the French Quarter and the well-to-do Garden District — are on their way back. Some neighborhoods occupying low lands, though, have all but vanished. Early in December the last off-limits section of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward was opened for a strict "look and leave" tour — residents were to arrive no earlier than 8 a.m. and to leave by 4 p.m.

Some residents were stunned to see power lines still dangling from poles, and streets thick and autos caked with muck. One planning recommendation is to raze much of the Ninth Ward and turn it into a park.

Recovery risks The road to recovery is fraught with risks. Public health officials worry about asbestos, lead and mold exposures from shoddy, rip-and-run demolition work. Elevated benzene levels. Topsoil contaminated with banned pesticides, arsenic and other industrial toxins from flooded refineries, factories, gas stations and waste dumps. Then there's the Katrina cough. Its symptoms — coughing, sore throats, runny noses and respiratory problems — are similar to those experienced by many Ground Zero cleanup workers exposed to dust and debris in the aftermath of 9/11.

Worker safety groups claim contractors often hire Latino immigrants from nearby cities like Houston and send them out on demolition jobs without respirators or any awareness of the health hazards they might confront. Some Brazilian and Honduran workers are not familiar with the words for asbestos and lead even in their primary language, safety advocates complain.

They also allege that contractors, rushing to make a buck, ignore safety practices that can be costly and time-consuming. Among their claims: Workers in cherry pickers maneuver dangerously close to live power lines. Men on roofing repair jobs are not tied off. One site where roofers were seen without fall protection was a union hall. Workers at landfills and debris collection areas, where millions of pounds of putrefying chickens and shrimp add a sickening stench to the high levels of dust, go without respiratory protection.

As with Ground Zero cleanup, OSHA and EPA have come under fire for relaxed vigilance. Safety and health advocacy groups accuse EPA of soft-pedaling health risks in public bulletins, much like the criticism EPA received after 9/11.

And in keeping with its policy implemented at Ground Zero, since formalized in the federal government's National Response Plan, OSHA is not enforcing safety and health regulations during recovery work. About 100 OSHA officers deployed in hurricane-impacted areas serve as technical advisors. The agency reports it has undertaken about 11,000 interventions, where officers observed a safety problem and provided advice on how to correct it. Only in cases of fatalities, accidents causing three or more workers to be hospitalized, or in response to an employee complaint will OSHA conduct inspections and possibly issue citations and penalties.

How much safety? New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are slowly rebuilding. Construction to repair the Superdome's roof and exterior should begin next month, and officials are relieved that preliminary tests showed most of the seats can be cleaned and treated, instead of replaced. The dome should be ready for football games next November.

Xavier University in New Orleans will reopen January 17, though the school must find space for about 200 trailers to house construction workers, faculty and students.

By the end of February, New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport should approach 50 percent of its pre-Katrina level of traffic.

Three of the sprawling convention center's ten halls will be ready to stage events in January, though 33 events have been canceled through March.

Tourism officials are determined that Mardi Gras must go on in 2006, though its scale is subject to much debate. And New Orleans' famous Jazz Fest will come off again next spring.

Oddly, the most hotly contested rebuilding project is the one that's essential to the region's recovery — reconstruction of the levee system. One New Orleans native said residents won't return until they are sure the levees are secure "so we don't have to do this every year."

Money of course is the bottom line issue. Funding to rebuild the levees to withstand a Category 3 level storm seems assured. But maximum protection against a Category 5 hurricane would likely surpass $32 billion — sticker shock to many in Washington.

So politicians and bureaucrats debate a subject uncomfortably familiar to many EHS pros — how much safety is enough?