Video: Return at your own risk
updated 10/3/2005 3:20:40 PM ET 2005-10-03T19:20:40

In New Orleans, waterlogged homes are covered in mold, there's no safe drinking water, power is spotty.  Floodwaters and the sludge left behind are contaminated with bacteria, fecal matter, arsenic, and lead.  Despite all of that, the mayor there, Ray Nagin on Friday invited residents to return to the Big Easy. 

Is it too soon for people to go back?  Dr. Holly Phillips, a general internist from New York and Heath Allen from NBC affiliate WDSU in New Orleans joined MSNBC's Monica Crowley on Friday's 'Scarborough Country' to discuss the issue.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

MONICA CROWLEY:  Heath, let me begin with you.  You're down in New Orleans.  Are you seeing a lot of people streaming back into that city? 

HEATH ALLEN, WDSU NEW ORLEANS:  No.  No.  I actually got up for work to come in early (on Friday).  I was going to come in a couple hours early, you know, expecting to sit in traffic coming back into the city of New Orleans this morning, since residents, this is their first, you know, day of really having the invitation to come back into targeted zip codes.  I cruised in.  It just, I was surprised there was not the flood everybody expected. 

Talking to some of your guys, they said they went out and looked, you know, for the crowd that was supposed to be coming back in.  Not what they expected.  So people are coming back in more like a trickle instead of the flood that everybody was looking to see.  Just did not happen this morning and maybe, you know, some people are just using good, common sense and saying I don't really don't want to go to the city of New Orleans if I have to camp on my front steps.  You know, we'll wait until things are a little more stable.

CROWLEY:  Keith, as we just mentioned, very little operating infrastructure in the city of New Orleans.  No safe drinking water, sporadic electricity and telephone service, also limited places to live and to eat, hospitals a little sketchy.  What are people, who are choosing to return, what are they actually coming back to? 

ALLEN:  Well, you know, it all depends on where they are coming back to.  Most of the areas that have been opened back up were areas that weren't that hard hit.  So what they are coming back to, like a family we visited with last night.  They're coming home to homes literally covered in mold, which you were talking about a little bit earlier.  They just don't have the safe drinking water.  They're coming back to a boil order.  They're coming back to no or little electricity.  They're coming back to a situation where they don't know what neighbors are going to be coming back into the neighborhood; they don't know who's going to be roaming the streets once the sun goes down and the curfew goes into effect.  So they're coming to a kind of an uncertain situation in the overnight periods.  They're coming back to an uncertain situation generally in the daytime, because they don't have the things they need, really, to ever get back on their feet.  Really can't really go to a store in downtown New Orleans.  You're gong to have to go into the outlying areas anyway, whether it be over in Kenner or across the river in Algiers.  So you're really coming back into a situation, as the water superintendent told me the other day, "Come back, be prepared to camp.  Come back, be self-sufficient.  Bring your self a tent, bring yourself a sleeping bag.  Leave your kids someplace else.  It's not the place to have your children at this point.  You know, it's a camping trip right now. 

CROWLEY:  Urban camping, unbelievable.  Dr. Phillips, let me go to you.  There are a lot of public health concerns right now, for the city of New Orleans, perhaps the greatest one is contaminated water.  Can you tell us how safe is the water in New Orleans to drink and also to come in contact with? 

PHILLIPS:  Well, really not at all.  Frankly, if the CDC says that it's not sanitary to drink, you simply shouldn't drink it.  Not only that, if it's not safe to drink, it's not safe to brush your teeth with, really not safe to cook with, not save to bathe in.  So it's difficult.  You'll need to boil the water, under their guidelines, which is about one to two minutes before you can use it at all.  And that may be difficult, particularly if electricity is spotty, and there are other concerns.  So it's a major concern. 

CROWLEY:  Dr. Phillips, what about mold?  Heath was just talking about the mold, and I can imagine after the city starts to dry out, after the entire city, itself, had been underwater for so long, that molds can be a serious health problem.  What are people supposed to be looking for in terms to exposure to molds? 

PHILLIPS:  Sure.  Mold is going to be a huge issue.  When people get back into their homes, anything that has been drenched, which, for moist people is everything, such as upholstered furniture, carpeting, draperies, all that will need to be removed, and mold can cause respiratory problems particularly in the very old, sometimes in the very young, anyone with asthma, emphysema or underlying respiratory illnesses can get very sick from exposure to the mold. 

CROWLEY:  Heath, what about the quality in New Orleans?  I know after September 11, there was a controversy about allowing people to move back into lower Manhattan because of the air quality.  Any airborne contaminants and bacteria and other disease that folks should be worried about? 

ALLEN:  Well, you know, down here, I mean, the air quality, right now, is just fine because what happens down here once everything dries out and of course nobody's been here, and if anything Rita gave us a little, or you know, the rain that drenched us one more time and washed everything and settled everything down, so air quality, you know, in effect is OK. 

But what happens is once people start coming back into their homes and they dumping that carpet that we were just listening to and taking the refrigerators out and putting them outside, and all of a sudden all the garbage that's been inside these houses for so long, goes back onto the streets, then you're going to have some air quality issues, then you're going to have some problems when all this stuff starts piling up on the street.  It's been contained inside the houses, now when people come back and start tossing everything back out on the street corner; I think that problem is just a little down the road. 

CROWLEY:  Dr. Phillips, what do you think those who choose to return to New Orleans now, what should they be on the lookout for in terms of protecting their own health? 

PHILLIPS:  Well, certainly any cuts would need to be attended to right away, and you can't wash it with, of course, the dirty water, they would need to use boiled and clean water, antibiotic ointment.  It's really not a place for, again, the very old or anyone who has underlying medical issues, or the very young.  Anyone who spends time around toddlers and infants knows it's very difficult to keep things out of their mouths.  They put absolutely everything in their mouth and so toys, anything that they can get their hands on, would have to be washed clean of the dirty water and that sort of thing. 

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