A Symbol of FEMA Delays

Workers watch as a backhoe drops hurricane debris in Smith Point, Tex. Spotters look for bodies and hazardous debris as each scoop is lifted and moved.
Workers watch as a backhoe drops hurricane debris in Smith Point, Tex. Spotters look for bodies and hazardous debris as each scoop is lifted and moved. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press
Sunday, December 7, 2008

SMITH POINT, Tex. -- 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. 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," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, the county's chief administrator.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) 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 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.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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