UH joins study
Research centers at the University of Hawaii and three other institutions are proposing a large study on Hurricane Katrina's effects on Lake Pontchartrain.
"The big concern now would be the nutrients in the floodwaters stimulating an algal bloom," said Ed Laws, former UH-Manoa oceanography department chairman, now dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. "I suspect that will happen."
Laws approached the National Science Foundation about the need to examine what is happening in one of the nation's largest estuaries.
The NSF and National Institute of Environmental Health Services funded the joint ocean and health research centers last year at UH, the University of Washington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the University of Miami.
The UH center does research on the benefits or harm to human health from marine organisms under a five-year federal grant of more than $1.3 million a year.
Roger Fujioka, with the UH Water Resources Research Center, said one of the goals is to determine the quality of water now as floodwater is pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, determine the amount of pathogens in the water and see how long it takes to clean up after the hurricane.
LSU will provide logistical support for researchers from the four centers, which are submitting companion proposals to the NSF, Laws said in a telephone interview.
The Hawaii center will analyze vibrio bacterial infections, which can be fatal, Fujioka said, noting the Big Island had a death a few years ago from vibrio vulnificus, a cousin of cholera.
Oyster samples will be sent to UH for analysis of tissues for vibrio and staphylococcal infections and human viruses, Fujioka said.
"There are a lot of logistical things we have to overcome because we're so far away," he said, "but Dr. Laws is making arrangements so everything is coordinated."
Laws and other LSU faculty members have been collecting samples as polluted and toxic floodwaters are pumped into Lake Pontchartrain.
He said some fish were dead, probably as a result of pumping floodwaters back into the lake, but there has been no big fish kill.
Historically, the area has had a big oyster operation, which has been shut down because of concerns that the oysters picked up pathogens, he said.
Thus far, the prime component of the floodwaters has been identified as E. coli bacteria, associated with human feces, he said. By the time the water reaches the Gulf of Mexico, he said, the E. coli and other pathogens likely will have died off because they do not survive well outside the human body.
People are moving back into homes and repairing roofs, he said. "It's remarkable. Power was totally off a week or so ago. Now at least some traffic lights are working."
But mold and contaminated dust in the buildings are a big concern, he said. "In some cases it's very hard to get rid of this mold."
Laws joined Louisiana State University Jan. 1 after 30 years on the UH-Manoa faculty.
Most of the focus will be on pathogens, although LSU also will look at mercury, lead and toxic organic compounds, Laws said.
"I think it's because we have this center already established that we can respond so quickly and cooperatively," Fujioka said, "and because Dr. Laws, our director here, has a direct line with NSF and coordinated this collaborative study."