MIT Responds to Hurricane Katrina

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused several sections of the levee system in New Orleans to collapse, flooding over 80% of the city. The conditions resulting from the hurricane represent a worst-case scenario for contamination of coastal waters by extreme weather events. In March of 2006 Instructors Heidi Nepf, Martin Polz, and Sheila Frankel along with teaching assistant Dana Hunt traveled to New Orleans with 8 students from Course 1.107 - Aquatic Chemistry and Biology Lab - to focus on the impacts of dewatering operations on the Lake Pontchartrain ecosystem.

Instructors Martin Polz, Heidi Nepf, and Sheila Frankel and teaching assistant Dana Hunt

Breaks in the levee system have now been repaired and pumping to remove the floodwaters is finished, with most of the floodwater being discharged into Lake Pontchartrain which borders the city on the north. Sediments are extremely important as they may harbor pathogens and heavy metals, releasing them episodically during wind events. Samples of water and sediment from Lake Pontchatrain had been continually collected since two weeks after the hurricane. This data set was available to our students and provided a wonderful foundation upon which to build their research projects. They developed their sampling strategy based on their studies from the first half of the semester. All told, the students collected 43 sediment samples and 100 bacterial cultures which were packed in dry ice and sent back to MIT for chromium and lead analysis, and sequencing for vibrio species.

We were hosted by Professor Gary Childers and his research assistant Chris Schwartz from Southeastern Louisiana University (SELU) which has an ongoing Lake Pontchartrain monitoring program. We were generously offered use of boats and welcomed into three SELU labs where we were able to carry out E.coli and nutrient analyses on our water samples. Professor Childers and Chris spent most of the week with us, lending us anything we needed and helping with our work. We felt that we were part of a big Southern family.

Professor Gary Childers, Professor Aixin Hou, and Research Assistant Chris Schwartz

The project also saw collaboration with Professors Aixin Hou and Ed Laws at Louisiana State University (LSU) who were examining the occurrence and distribution of pathogens in the sediments.

When not sampling or working in the lab we were very fortunate to be taken on a VIP tour by three engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers of the devastation and reconstruction efforts. Since this visit marked the first time many of us had ever been to the deep South, we visited the oldest recorded plantation in America and toured the Garden District and French Quarter of New Orleans.

Our travel and living expenses were provided by a grant from the Kurtz Family Foundation, given to the MIT President's Office for Hurricane Katrina relief. We are indebted to them for their assistance in our research and travels. Professor Childers would also like to acknowledge their grant from the EPA's Gulf of Mexico Program: "Bacterial source hentification along the south shores of Lake Pontchatrain" (#MX-96401004-9).



Field Work Katrina Local Culture
The Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering