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Disaster Preparedness and Homeland Security

If the Katrina and Rita disasters last year proved nothing else, it was that our Nation’s medical and communications infrastructure ran the risk of being overwhelmed if a major CBRN attack occurred. At the same time, the question of how well we are prepared for a repeat of the Katrina and Rita situations remains.

A report from the Partnership for Public Service in 2003 highlighted our inability to respond to a chemical or biological attack because of a shortage of science and medical experts.

Delving deeper into the actual report, among the conclusions were:

· Bio-terror threat growing & represents a security threat

· Response capacity shrinking…1/2 of the federal scientific and medical personnel in bio-defense to be eligible to retire by 2008

· Threat from biological weapons grows larger and more pressing as scientific and technological advances in biology expand.

· al Qaeda has been pursuing plans and materials to develop biological weapons…the possibility of a bio-terrorist attack even more deadly than September 11

· Shortage of scientific and medical personnel jeopardizes federal bio-defense agencies to counter a BW attack

· Local first responders, regional vaccine stockpiling, and bio-weapon monitors in big cities have attracted funding Fed. resources needed to respond to a wide-spread terror attack, such as aerosolized/weaponized anthrax

· Conduct an audit of US bio-defense work force and create a single point of accountability to monitor federal bio-defense staffing.

Why is this important? How is preparedness for a chemical or biological attack related to disaster preparedness? Our medical infrastructure needs to be able to react and respond to a devastating natural disaster just like it needs to be prepared for a mass casualty terrorist attack.

According to a survey of U.S. Gulf Coast emergency rooms indicates that they would be overwhelmed in the event of a repeat of Katrina. While the hurricane season to date seems quite tame by last year’s standard, it appears that if another natural disaster of the proportion of Katrina or Rita occurred, we are simply not prepared.

Key points:

· About 50 million U.S. residents live in hurricane-prone coastal communities, according to the National Hurricane Center

· About 43 percent of all hospital visits begin in the ER, according to national data, but Gulf Coast facilities are overtaxed. Two-thirds of the Gulf Coast doctors surveyed feel patient care is being harmed by overcrowding and lack of resources

· Two of the area's public hospitals have not yet re-opened, pushing more uninsured patients to emergency rooms. Seven of 22 hospitals remain closed.

· "The whole system is on life support," said James Moises, an emergency room doctor at Tulane University hospital, one of the only hospitals open in downtown New Orleans.

· The survey also polled doctors in the hurricane-hit Biloxi, Mississippi, region, where most hospitals have re-opened, but a shortage of doctors is leading care to be diverted 60 miles (97 km) across the state to a trauma center.

It doesn't seem like we're ready.