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September 20, 2006

Federal Health Policy Response to Hurricane Katrina: What It Was and What It Could Have Been

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC (Dr Lambrew); and University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla (Dr Shalala).

JAMA. 2006;296(11):1394-1397. doi:10.1001/jama.296.11.1394

One year ago, the United States experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history. Hurricane Katrina caused well-documented, widespread death and destruction, reducing hospital capacity by 80% and safety-net clinics by 75% in New Orleans alone.1 The hurricane also created a diaspora of more than a million evacuees to every state in the nation.

This disaster could be viewed as an isolated event. Indeed, the hurricane destroyed infrastructure in states with low income and particularly high health care needs. Yet similar crises could occur in different and, unfortunately, likely circumstances. A major earthquake, avian flu epidemic, or bioterrorism attack could diminish health care capacity, cause displacement, and take a great toll on the nation's health. Thus, the federal health policy response to Hurricane Katrina is not just history but a test of the system's effectiveness.