New Orleans Fire Department Hazmat Response Following Katrina

News media personnel, emergency responders and others have said that you cannot appreciate the devastation in New Orleans from news footage and photos. What an understatement, as I learned when I visited New Orleans on Dec. 23, 2005, to talk with...


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Strong winds and storm surge also caused several cars to derail in the CSX rail yard. One of the derailed cars contained fuming sulfuric acid. Other nearby cars contained methyl acrylate monomer, heptanes and combustible liquids. Several barges were also washed over the levees by the storm surge. One such barge was about two-thirds full of benzene. The barge traveled approximately 100 feet from the levee across an industrial yard, a four-lane highway, and through power poles and a swamp. No damage occurred to the barge and there were no leaks. At the time of my visit, the barge was still resting where it landed, awaiting removal of the benzene by the owners.

Hazmat team members responded to one explosion with fire at 3200 Chartres St. with phosphorus, arsenic, calcium and tin metal involved. They also responded to the Mandeville Street Wharf fire that destroyed a large portion of the massive warehouse. It is estimated that over 1,000 natural gas leaks occurred, a total that was likely much higher. Other missions included hazmat response for Presidential visits on Oct. 10 and 11. Ammonia leaks occurred at New Orleans Cold Storage and Browns Velvet Dairy.

As time went on, rescues were concluded and the flood waters receded, hazmat team members focused on identifying hazardous materials in buildings and homes. As more people returned to the city, call volume increased for hazardous materials discovered in debris piles. Refrigerators and other appliances with freon had to be identified so that contractors could remove the freon before disposal. Fumigation contractor procedures were assessed by hazmat personnel and permits issued for fumigation operations to ensure they were conducted safely.

EMS personnel from the New Orleans Department of Health, about 60% of fire personnel including the hazmat team and other City Hall employees were living on the Sensation, including the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the fire department. Most hazmat team members spent Christmas 2005 away from their families. Life aboard the cruise ships includes room, meals and a nightly movie, but there are no phones or TV. No timetable has been determined for the renovation or rebuilding of damaged fire stations, including Hazmat Station 7. Personnel are taking matters one day at a time and hoping that it won't be too long before life begins to return to normal in New Orleans.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be at robert.burke@att.net.