BILOXI, Miss. -- Refrigerators, rail cars-even explosives-have been plucked from the Mississippi Sound and adjacent waterways in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as a $230-million marine debris removal effort cleans both the coastal waters and inland waterways of the Mississippi Coast. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees the interagency campaign, and hopes to be finished by the end of January. Inland cleanup in waterways north of Interstate 10 should also be finished by the end of January.
The primary area of saltwater cleanup is a belt of the Sound extending a half mile out and spreading from state line to state line. The removal of debris from deeper waters, extending four miles out, is scheduled to begin in January and may last into the summer.
The underwater cleanup gained publicity recently when an unusually low tide in early December allowed workmen to wade far out into areas not usually exposed. Nearly 13,000 cubic yards of debris have been taken from the key coastal strip out to the half-mile point, and a total of more than 51,000 cubic yards have come out of the water since marine cleanup began last September. Marine debris removal will be 100 percent federally funded until May 15, 2007.
"Wet debris" work uses many tools, ranging from beachfront raking machines (a bit like golf course ball-pickers) to special nets trolled by shrimp boats in deeper water, but the main element is human. As many as 30 wading debris pickers have been crisscrossing the Sound, pulling up sunken or floating objects by hand. If the debris can be hefted manually it is placed on a small johnboat or carried to shore for pickup by a front-end loader. Larger objects-a submerged automobile or even a semi-trailer-can be tagged with a buoy for the later attentions of a barge and crane.
Monitored by FEMA, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard, the marine debris removal extends into clogged river systems. Wreckage not only impedes navigation but could form breeding grounds for mosquitoes and snakes. The campaign as a whole is motivated by health, safety and navigation issues. Cleanup of the waterways "affects the entire economy of the Mississippi shoreline," said Coast Guard Warrant Officer Richard Sharpless, who helps oversee the cleanup.
Among the many issues complicating marine debris removal is the ownership of the debris. A sunken car or wrecked houseboat may have an insurance claim to be dealt with. Prior to removal, foundered boats receive a spray-painted "D"-for "debris"-on a portion that remains exposed above the waterline, giving notice that tow-away is imminent. According to Deborah Darsey, FEMA liaison with the cleanup, boats sometimes disappear prematurely if an owner feels moved to conduct his own salvage.
Another delicate issue involves possible hazardous wastes. Engine blocks and batteries have been retrieved, and at least one chemical rail car was found floating east of the Pascagoula River .
Explosive items ranging from boxes of shotgun shells to artillery ordnance have also been recovered from the water. In the extreme low tide of early December a tractor-trailer came looming into view in the Back Bay , setting up an owner and insurance search along with removal. As on land, aquatic debris carries many signatures of tragedy, but it is yielding steadily to hopes for the future.
FEMA manages federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident, initiates mitigation activities and manages the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA works closely with state and local emergency managers, law enforcement personnel, firefighters and other first responders. FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on March 1, 2003.