Sabine Refuge Still Reeling from Rita's Wrath

The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana was ravaged by Hurricane Rita in September 2005. Many months later, the massive amount of debris the storm dumped in the Sabine marshland remains, and the area may not be able to act as a buffer between residential areas and coming storms this hurricane season.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The National Hurricane Center today warns Florida to brace for Tropical Storm Alberto. It's the first named storm of the season. There are fears it could develop into a hurricane. Of course, many areas along the Gulf Coast are still recovering from last year's awful storms, Hurricane Katrina and the one that came after it, Hurricane Rita. It hit the vast marshlands of Cameron Parish, Louisiana. And some of those marshes have not yet healed.

Pauline Bartolone reports.

(Soundbite of traffic)

PAULINE BARTOLONE reporting:

That's the sound of the Creole Nature Trail in southwest Louisiana. It's a 180-mile stretch of highway that cuts through the area's marshlands to coastal towns flattened by Hurricane Rita. We're passing small mounds of waste, oil rigs and miles of brown, patchy wetlands.

Ms. DIANE BORDON-BILLIOT (Sabine National Wildlife Refuge): They call it Louisiana's Outback. It's the only place like it in the country.

BARTOLONE: Diane Bordon-Billiot helps manage the area's wildlife refuges.

Ms. BORDON-BILLIOT: Right now, this particular stretch of the road doesn't look too hot because of all the homes that were damaged and, you know, the people that are cleaning up and doing their repairs.

BARTOLONE: We pull up to a small town called Holly Beach, which looks like a post-apocalyptic construction zone.

Ms. BORDON-BILLIOT: It's just piles of metal and cars and tires and tractors, kid's toys, pieces of plastic. There's nothing here. This really got hit. I mean it wiped out the whole community.

BARTOLONE: When Rita's winds tore through Holly Beach last September, the residents relocated northward, and so did their debris. During the storm, a tidal surge swept up the destroyed houses to Sabine Wildlife Refuge, a marshland used by local hunters and fishermen. Hundreds of acres of the storm waste are now sinking in what used to be a vast oasis of tall, green grass.

(Soundbite of an airboat)

BARTOLONE: Refuge manager Terence Delaine took me on an airboat tour of Sabine's ailing marsh, which remains indefinitely closed.

Mr. TERENCE DELAINE (Refuge Manager, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge): Look like somebody's landfill with all their personal home items piled up. We have thousands and thousands of stoves, refrigerators, ice machines. If it was in a person's home, it's probably on this refuge right now.

BARTOLONE: Masses of now-decaying marsh grass, mixed up with manmade waste, are strewn across the Sabine like sores on an otherwise pristine landscape. Beyond these patches are acres of open water that used to be storm-absorbing marshland. Each day, the massive debris piles are becoming more embedded into the murky marsh water.

Mr. DELAINE: We've had a tanker truck wind up in here from an 18-wheeler. Just the tanker bodies. We've had at least two of them wind up on this refuge. And one disappeared out of sight.

BARTOLONE: Most worrisome are the huge shiny cylinders all over the marsh. They're filled with hundreds of gallons of unknown substances and are increasingly difficult to fish out. Delaine says many of them come from the coastal oil industry and contain potentially hazardous material.

Mr. DELAINE: We know we're dealing with a time bomb, of it - of containers rusting away and corroding. And for the most part, we've got containers; we don't really know what's in them, whether or not it's oil, or something even worse than that. And that's part of the dilemma, as well, a lot of unknowns, a whole lot of unknowns.

BARTOLONE: A lot of unknowns about a lot of things, about when Congress will approve funding that will give the refuge a minimum of $10 million to clean up; about how many dozens of explosions or toxic chemicals could be unleashed by the marsh's summer fire season. But one thing for sure, says Delaine, is that the open water and the weakened marsh will not be able to buffer the sting of this season's storms.

Mr. DELAINE: I have no doubt that if you had a storm right behind it right now, I think you'll probably see more of a detrimental effect further north than what you got the first time around.

BARTOLONE: While the Sabine workers brace for potential summer emergencies, Bordon-Billiot says she doesn't worry about the health of the marsh in the long run.

Ms. BORDON-BILLIOT: Our only problem is the manmade stuff. The marsh itself is going to be fine. Whether we were here or not, it will continue on. It will keep on going.

BARTOLONE: For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone.

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