What’s So Great About Ice?

Why they bought 200 million pounds of it for Katrina victims.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered more than 200 million pounds of ice following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency says they have more ice than they need, and truckers hired by the agency have been carting excess bags around the country. Is ice really that important for the victims of a hurricane?

Yes. According to emergency-response agencies, it’s more important to deliver ice than it is to distribute food in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Hurricane victims can use ice to refrigerate food, preserve medicine, and cool off in the summer heat. When the ice eventually melts, they can use it for water.

Dehydration poses a more immediate risk than starvation, so aid workers start by trying to deliver water. Cold water gets absorbed more quickly into the gut than warm water, so a few ice cubes could help those who are at the greatest risk. Ice water might also help stave off heat-related illness.

Families in disaster areas without electricity can use ice to refrigerate food. Frozen items kept in a closed freezer can last for three days or more without power; adding a few bags of ice can significantly extend this period. It’s also more efficient to supply ice to hurricane victims—which allows them to preserve their own food—than it is to dole out nonperishable food, like military MREs.

Ice is also used to preserve certain medical supplies. In particular, aid workers try to get ice to anyone who requires regular doses of insulin. (Diabetes affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population, with a higher rate among African-Americans.) Drug manufacturers say insulin should be stored between 35 and 46 degrees, although it can last for up to 28 days if left in the heat. Prepared baby formula can also be preserved with ice.

If ice is so important, why are truckloads of it being tossed in storage? It’s not clear what happened. The Army Corps of Engineers says mass evacuations from the disaster area reduced the need for ice. A FEMA official told NBC news that the agency simply made a mistake. It could be that the victims of Katrina didn’t have any food to keep cool.

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