Removing the Debris on Mississippi's Coast

Hurricane Katrina left behind tons of debris: building materials from ruined houses, branches from downed trees, and hundreds of flooded cars. The material could fill 800 football fields 50 feet high, and it will take months to remove.

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When Katrina flattened towns along the Gulf Coast, it left behind tons of debris: building materials from ruined houses, branches from trees, hundreds of flooded cars and a lot more. There's enough debris to fill 800 football fields--800 of them--50 feet high. As NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, it will take months to remove it all.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

This waterfront neighborhood in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, used to be known as Jordan River Isle. Now it's a debris-strewn wasteland that the workers here simply call Section 12.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HOCHBERG: Where homes once stood along the Mississippi Sound, there's nothing left, except rubble. Katrina's 20-foot storm surge reduced Jordan River Isle to little more than lumber and bricks. Operating a machine called a knuckle boom, Ralph Diggs(ph) has the job of trying to clear it away.

Mr. RALPH DIGGS (Worker): You know, there's people's houses that's--you know, that's totally annihilated, you know, like the ones down on the beach that's--there's nothing there but a slab, you know, and a swimming pool. You know, it's--it kind of works on you emotionally. It really does.

HOCHBERG: Diggs is working under contract to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is trying to remove about six million cubic yards of debris from coastal Mississippi. For now, crews aren't venturing onto private property. They're only trying to clear the streets. But the Corps' Mamie Brouwer says even that task is overwhelming in neighborhoods like this, where rubble is stacked five feet deep.

Ms. MAMIE BROUWER (Army Corps of Engineers): It's absolutely surreal. I was walking down the street, and it was at least 15 minutes before I realized what I was seeing. What you're seeing here, I believe, is just the first paths of the bulldozer to open the road. So this--all of this debris here was what was sitting on the road.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HOCHBERG: The rubble from Section 12 is carted off, one truckload at a time, and driven here to a former pecan orchard that's been converted to a dump site. Every 30 seconds or so, a truck passes through the front gate and gets permission to drop its load.

Unidentified Woman: All right. Last name?

Unidentified Man #1: Little (ph).

Unidentified Woman: Area?

Unidentified Man #2: Morning, ma'am.

HOCHBERG: At this site and others in Mississippi, the Army Corps is trying to sort the tons of debris. Environmental officer Tim Smith says some will be recycled. The rest will be burned or landfilled.

Mr. TIM SMITH (Environmental Officer): They've got a pile over here where they're pulling the wood out, the vegetation debris, and then sporadically, they'll pull out--if they see any gas tanks, tires, lawn mowers, if there's any white goods that get mixed up in there accidentally, they're pulling that out also. And then they'll recycle the white goods.

HOCHBERG: Workers here hope to remove all the debris within eight months or so, mindful that the longer it sits in devastated neighborhoods, the greater chance it might catch fire or become infested with rats. Still, environmentalists warn against rushing the cleanup. Becky Gillette of the Mississippi Sierra Club says accuracy is more important than speed, and crews should take time to separate the debris properly.

Ms. BECKY GILLETTE (Mississippi Sierra Club): There is an attempt to do this right. I'm just concerned with the large amount of waste that we have, that we don't use the excuse of a hurricane emergency to add more pollution for people to suffer from.

HOCHBERG: Gillette worries household chemicals might end up in landfills, polluting the groundwater, or treated wood might be incinerated, polluting the air. She wants more emphasis on recycling. The Army Corps says it's doing its best to protect the environment, but concedes that's a challenge as it undertakes the largest cleanup job in American history. Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): This is NPR News.

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