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Debris pile on Texas coast becomes symbol of delays

FEMA's response to '08 hurricanes is called sluggish

Hurricane debris was scooped recently in Smith Point, Texas. Spotters watch for bodies and hazardous debris in the rubble. Hurricane debris was scooped recently in Smith Point, Texas. Spotters watch for bodies and hazardous debris in the rubble. (Pat Sullivan/ Associated Press)
By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press / December 2, 2008
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SMITH POINT, Texas - A 30-mile scar of debris along the Texas coast stands as a festering testament to what state and local officials say is FEMA's sluggish response to the 2008 hurricane season.

Two and a half months after Hurricane Ike blasted the shoreline, alligators and snakes crawl over vast piles of shattered building materials, lawn furniture, trees, boats, tanks of butane and other hazardous substances, thousands of animal carcasses, perhaps even the corpses of people killed by the storm.

State and local officials complain that the removal of the filth has gone almost nowhere because FEMA red tape has held up both the cleanup work and the release of the millions of dollars that Chambers County says it needs to pay for the project.

Elsewhere along the coast, similar complaints are heard: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been slow to reimburse local governments for what they have already spent, putting the rural counties on the brink of financial collapse.

"I don't know all the internal workings of FEMA," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, the county's chief administrator. "But if they've had a lot of experience in hurricanes and disaster, it looks like they could come up with some kind of process that would work."

Governor Rick Perry was so incensed at delays in sending cleanup crews to the rotting, city-size pile of waste that he angrily told reporters two weeks ago that he is going to have the state clean it up and then stick FEMA with the bill.

FEMA, whose very name became a bitter joke after the agency's botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said it is working as fast as it can considering the complex regulations and the need to guard against fraud and waste in the use of taxpayer dollars.

Moreover, "you can't work too many people, because it's just too dangerous," said Clay Kennelly, hired by FEMA to oversee the cleanup of a section of the debris pile. "And you can't just put Bubba or Skeeter out here on a dozer."

The 2008 hurricane season ended this week after walloping the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts with three major storms: Dolly, near the Mexican border in July; Gustav, which slammed the Texas-Louisiana line on Labor Day; and Ike, the 600-mile-wide monster that barreled ashore at Galveston on Sept. 12.

Only a hundred yards or so of the 30 miles of debris in Chambers County has been cleaned up, because the project has been slowed by negotiations over who is responsible for what.

Along the rest of the Gulf Coast, thousands of homeless families are still living in tents, trailers, and motel rooms, and hundreds of businesses are lying in near-ruin.

The federal government is responsible for public lands or hazardous waste, while private landowners must handle their own cleanup but can apply for assistance. Much of the debris has been left to rot while crews determine whose land the junk is on and what is in it.

Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough tells the story of receiving word on Sept. 12, as Ike closed in on Galveston, that FEMA was sending him $1.8 million of his $3 million request for storm cleanup - from Hurricane Rita, three years ago.

"Good Lord! The red tape and rules you have to go through to get anything done," Yarbrough said. "On Hurricane Ike, when we're putting out tens of millions, we can't afford a three-year reimbursement program."

In a statement, FEMA said the recovery process "continues seamlessly," and it cited the many rules and overlapping jurisdictions involved. "The steps in the process of recovery include many at the individual, local, state, and federal level," FEMA said. "In large measure they are understandable safeguards."

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