T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T     S E P T E M B E R  –  O C T O B E R  2005



Richard Wyatt

The story of Hurricane Katrina and NIH’s role in disaster relief will be unfolding for months to come, but it is clear that the NIH community responded (and continues to respond) with compassion, energy, and professionalism to meet medical and public health needs.

In short order, NIH staffed a field hospital, created a national consultation service, and prepared the NIH Clinical Center (CC) to receive storm victims and their families. Soon after, the Intramural Research Program started arranging housing for displaced scientists from the storm-ravaged areas.

To catalogue the NIH response is useful, but it is also important to recognize the outstanding leadership and spirit that characterized the early response. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, Deputy Director Raynard Kington, CC Director John Gallin, CC Deputy Director for Clinical Care David Henderson, and, indeed, the entire NIH leadership mustered efficiently to plan, assess, and coordinate to make NIH resources available and do the right thing in the face of the disaster.

For the first time in my memory, the NIH Director clearly asked the NIH biomedical research organization to "set aside business as usual in this unusual time." This call to action was heard by myriad NIHers—more than could serve at once—who stepped up to help. There was even frustration in the voices of some who wanted to serve but for whom there was no immediate role. For many, their service is continuing to support and conduct outstanding biomedical research at the NIH and waiting to see whether additional appropriate active response roles emerge.

NIHers have responded directly through deployments to the affected region to offer assistance. One of the first of five commissioned officers from NIH to arrive was Captain Charles McGarvey, Clinical Center Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, who was the team leader for a field hospital in Baton Rouge, La. Others followed quickly, and within days, some 40 officers and approximately 60 civilian health professionals and support personnel had been deployed to sites in the affected areas to meet medical, nursing, mental health, and even veterinary needs.

Our administrative staff and our clinical staff worked together to mobilize a coordinated response. Through an unprecedented call to medical school deans with the assistance of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Dr. Zerhouni spoke with our academic partners, some of whom (such as the staff at Duke University in Durham, N.C.) joined directly and others of whom catalogued resources that could be deployed as needed. As of this writing, more than 1,250 volunteers (intramural and AAMC partners) have offered their support. More than 75 additional NIH officers remain prepared, ready, and willing to go at a moment’s notice to serve where needed.

Many NIHers—including the Director’s immediate office staff and CC staff—have served long hours in situ to organize, facilitate, and communicate so that others could go out efficiently and serve.

Additional details of some NIH efforts include:

Making available up to 100 beds in the Clinical Center without perturbing our research mission should the need arise to transfer select patients here from the disaster area. Housing for families in the old Clinical Center, Safra Family Lodge, and the NIH Children’s Inn has also been made available.

Establishing a 24/7 consultation call center for various specialty medical areas—including infectious diseases, environmental/toxic concerns, and oncology—to aid primary care providers in the affected region and link them to health advice around the country

Mustering a team of more than 150 specialized medical and support personnel to staff a field hospital in Meridian, Miss., or to supplement wherever needed. The team was led by CC staff, including Dr. Pierre Noel, Captain Elaine Ayres, and Captain Laura Chisholm, as well as NIEHS Director David Schwartz. Many traveled to Mississippi and stood ready to assist, although, as the situation evolved, this facility was not needed.

Providing DNA identification of remains and match-up of DNA samples from relatives, if needed, through NHGRI

Providing intramural research laboratories and local housing to displaced graduate students, postdocs, and senior scientists who lost their laboratories and resources, mainly in New Orleans

This is a time to recognize with pride the substantial contributions of NIH staff whenever called upon to help with disaster relief, as well as the commitment and talent of NIH leadership who have responded so effectively in this crisis. We need to remember for the next time how we can pull together in such a crisis to serve others beyond this creative research environment in which we are privileged to work.

Richard Wyatt

Executive Director, Office of Intramural Research

For extensive information on the NIH response to Hurricane Katrina, visit this website.


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