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West Nile 'non-traditional' disaster

BY DANIEL YEE | BALTIMORE | August 23, 2002

"I think the word ... 'non-traditional' is a good way to describe it."

—Art Jones

If it's a flood, earthquake, tornado or hurricane, emergency management agencies are ready to help people. But what emergency planners in Louisiana and Mississippi are facing is a little bit different: the chaos and panic caused by a different disaster: the West Nile virus.

"I think the word ... 'non-traditional' is a good way to describe it," said Art Jones, disaster recovery division chief for the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness. "This is affecting every community in the state. We are kind of writing the book for this as we go."

Many states are finding they are having to deal with the threat of the mosquito-borne virus as they go. Nearly 300 people have become ill from the virus in 15 states, the District of Columbia and New York City. About 150 of those cases are in Louisiana and 58 more cases are in Mississippi. These states as well as Arkansas have declared statewide emergencies to tackle the problem.

In addition, 14 people have died from the virus, including eight in Louisiana and three in Mississippi.

"We declared a state of emergency because the local counties were so heavily impacted; we had a budget cut and crisis situation the past two years in Mississippi and counties had to budget less for ... mosquito spraying and normal precautions," said Amy Carruth, spokesperson for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "West Nile is something new and different, but really not procedurally different than [another] natural disaster."

Traditional disasters often result in state receiving help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Because West Nile virus is a public health problem, state and federal health agencies -- such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- have taken the lead and state emergency management planners help when state and county funds get low, Carruth said.

"This is a public health concern," Carruth said. "We stepped in at the request of the [state] health department because resources are being depleted rapidly, which is similar to a natural disaster."

Counties and state agencies quickly are going through their funds for mosquito control efforts and are looking to federal agencies for more help.

Having health agencies that can provide assistance in addition to FEMA is helpful, Carruth said.

"That's the only difference [compared to traditional disasters], having the HHS department driving the emergency more than FEMA," she said. "What we're doing is the same old operation stuff. We are here to help answer questions, be a coordination point for federal agencies and the governor's office. ... We kind of collaborate all of it and hang on to it."

A flood or tornado may not affect the entire state. But having a statewide disaster such as West Nile virus is causing unique challenges.

"If a disaster affected the northern part of the state and the southern part had resources, we could pull resources from there," Carruth said. "But now, 62 of 82 counties are affected. Pretty much everybody is laying on everybody's shoulder right now."

Already Louisiana has received $3.4 million and Mississippi $300,000 from the CDC for mosquito surveillance and lab upgrades. Officials in both states estimate mosquito control efforts will cost several million dollars more.

"Since the protective measures of the state have been exceeded, we requested federal assistance, such as equipment to help spray, equipment to be used in preventing mosquitoes and protecting the public," Carruth said.

"The [Mississippi State] Department of Health received federal moneys from HHS and the CDC for education, mosquito prevention and things that normally fall under this realm."

In Louisiana, pools of standing water from tropical storm Allison in June 2001 and an unusually mild winter have resulted in an explosion of mosquito larvae, Jones said.

"We're still hoping to get FEMA status," Jones added. "The state has allowed deficit spending for help with [mosquito-killing] chemicals, aerial and ground spraying."

Even before the West Nile virus disaster, federal agencies have played a role. After tropical storm Allison, Louisiana received some federal funding to spray for mosquitoes for a two-week period. A mosquito conference in November helped state officials develop a state vector control implementation plan, Jones said.

The precedent in recent years for federal agencies helping with West Nile virus disease disasters was set when the disease was first discovered in 1999 in New York City. It was the first time the disease was found in the Western Hemisphere. Both New York and New Jersey received FEMA funding in Sept. 1999 to respond to the virus, Jones added.

Churches are finding that their role in a disease disaster such as West Nile virus is much different than in traditional disasters.

"In this particular case, we're not housing people or are assisting folk that are displaced" because there isn't such a need in the West Nile virus outbreak, said the Rev. Larry G. Maxwell of First United Methodist Church in Covington, La.

"Basically [the emergency] is related to spraying and exterminating and making people aware of eliminating areas of standing water...These are physical things that people's public awareness could be raised. Beyond that I don't know what a church could do."

Likewise, First Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., has "done nothing publicly," said the Rev. Rob Boyd. "We are encouraging one another to be careful when we go out at dusk and use repellent," Boyd added. "We are urging people to be careful ... That's all; we're still in the unknown stage."

Although the spread of the virus still is unknown, Carruth said other states can take steps now.

"My advice is to make sure to budget for mosquito spraying next year," she said. "That's what I think a lot of our counties are going to have to be facing. They are going to have to figure out ways to put it in" the budget. Emergency management officials say that this year's disaster can prepare state officials and residents for a future crisis.

"With any type of disaster ... you're always better prepared for the next one, with every tornado, people learn," Carruth said. "People will be more educated and informed the next time if West Nile appears or any type of mosquito-borne illness, then people will understand the severity of it."

In the meantime, however, authorities are working to channel resources, fight mosquitoes and educate people in the process.

"We're going door-to-door and telling what the public can do to protect themselves," Carruth added. "Hopefully you can convince people of the actions they need to take. We hope this will never come back around."

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