Hurricane Rita's Toxic Wake

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Dozens of alligators duck and dodge airboats at the Sabine Wildlife Refuge, where the cleanup from Hurricane Rita is just beginning nearly a year after the storm hit the Texas-Louisiana border. Rita struck less than a month after Katrina, forcing New Orleans evacuees to flee further inland. Rita's storm surge demolished coastal Louisiana towns and turned this southwest Louisiana marsh into a toxic trash heap, leaving fields littered with everything from flip-flops and shampoo bottles to refrigerators and entire 18-wheelers. One of about 3,000 trash piles is 5 miles long and half a mile wide. There are oil drums that look like soup cans the size of FedEx trucks. Work to clean up the mess officially begins the Tuesday after Labor Day. For now, officials are still getting permits and making cleanup plans. The only work being done on the canals is to catch oil and other hazardous liquids and keep them from going into the Gulf.

After the storm, FEMA cleaned up to the refuge's property line — and stopped. Congressman Charles Boustany (R-La.) blames the Stafford Act, which doesn't allow FEMA to work on government land. "We had the Army Corps of engineers and the EPA down there, but they couldn't go on federal property," he says. "You could see where the cleanup work was being done, and 100 yards over, there's horrendous debris and hazardous tanks — and nobody's touching it."

It wasn't until June that President George W. Bush signed the fourth hurricane appropriation bill giving U.S. Fish & Wildlife $132 million to clean up hazardous material. The delay will end up costing taxpayers more money — because the same cleanup crews that worked last fall have to return to Louisiana and start again. In the year since Rita, the debris has sunk deep into the marsh, making hazardous materials more difficult to find and retrieve. Plus, labels have peeled off containers, so no one knows exactly what they have contained, or how much they have already leaked. No one knows how much damage has already been done, or what the long-term damage will be. "It's been exceedingly frustrating," says Boustany, who wants the provision in the Stafford Act, which covers disaster and emergency assistance, changed to allow government cleanup crews onto federal property. With the hurricane season just gaining momentum, he worries about the next storm. Environmental groups recently issued a report urging Congress to pass new legislation to restore the disappearing wetlands. "Unless Louisiana's losses are reversed, the communities of Louisiana cannot survive," said Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

The Sabine refuge has been allotted $12 million for cleanup. It's expensive, because the debris piles are in areas that are hard to get to. The biggest pile is stuck in the middle of the refuge — and there aren't any roads leading to it. Cleanup crews can't bulldoze the marsh, because that would destroy the wetlands; they can't burn it, because of toxic fumes. People can't walk in the marsh, because the ground isn't solid (and they don't know what lies beneath the surface). "There's no telling what you'll step on," says refuge field representative Reuben LaBauve. "I don't know if a tetanus shot would do you any good."

The wetlands have to be preserved, because they slow down the storm and decrease the storm surge. "The wetlands protect the levees, and the levees protect the people," says Dale Hall Director of U.S. Fish & Wildlife services. He points out that for every 2.7 miles a hurricane travels across a marsh, the storm surge is reduced by one foot. "We have to focus on rebuilding those wetlands for the future — or it's going to get even worse as storms come in," Hall says.

Marshes act like sponges during storms. They suck up all the dirt and debris and keep it from traveling inland. But right now, the sponge is disgusting and dirty. And you have to clean a filthy sponge before you can use it again. The plan is to get all the hazardous materials out of the swamp by Christmas, take out all the white appliances like refrigerators, and then remove the electronics like televisions and computers. Afterwards the refuge officials will burn off the wood and dead grasses. "Fire is our plow," LaBauve says. "I figure if they can rebuild Iraq, they can damn sure rebuild this refuge... There's no permanent scar here. There's nothing we can't fix."

That's the we-can-rebuild attitude shared by many former residents of nearby Holly Beach, La. The entire town was completely erased by Rita — about 500 houses were destroyed. The debris from Holly Beach and neighboring towns now litters the Sabine Refuge. Holly Beach was once known as the Cajun Riviera. There was always a band playing on the beach, crabs cooking, and constant parties. "This was Margaritaville," says Gene Reynolds, a local high school principal. There is nothing but concrete slabs where the houses once stood, and a few concrete steps leading to nothing. The only thing left standing after the storm was the town's water tower. Reynolds and four other men are working nights and weekends to build a new house — one of five planned.

The only two people walking on the beach are Steve and Lisa Stroud, filling a plastic Wal-Mart bag with seashells. They drove six hours from northern Louisiana to visit the place where they've vacationed since they were kids. "We never even bothered to buy a T-shirt," Steve Stroud says sadly of his last visit.

Right now, there aren't any grocery stores or restaurants for 40 miles. On the edge of town, Sonny Meaux, 52, is selling fresh-caught crabs and Cokes from a shed sporting a "Holly Beach, Ground Zero for Hurricane Rita" sign. He says there are rumors that high rises are going to be built on the beach. He won't sell his land for less than $5 million. "I figure I'm gonna be the last one standing because of my price," he says. Out in the harbor, fisherman are catching pogies — in an area that has not been fished for 30 years. But a recent oil spill has made it so few want to eat seafood.

Sonny says a FEMA inspector cried when he saw the devastation of Holly Beach. Yet, his claim was ruled "insufficient damage." His wife, Loretta, says they have appealed four times, but she's giving up. She sits on the steps of their trailer, drowning a new avocado tree with water from a garden hose. There used to be 40 palm trees bordering the property, she says. Now there are two. Loretta says she's having a bad day. All she can think about is moving — but they don't have anywhere else to go. "Hurricane Rita never happened," Sonny says. "It was just Katrina. We are forgotten."