October 3, 2008

Hurricane Ike Dumps a Mess on Gulf of Mexico Beaches


Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the world's longest undeveloped barrier island, now looks as if people have been living - and dumping - on it for decades. || Tons of debris swept up by Hurricane Ike last month was carried by Gulf of Mexico currents hundreds of miles from the upper Texas coast to this ordinarily pristine landscape just north of the Mexican border.

Sections of roofs, refrigerators, love seats, beds, TVs, hot tubs and holiday decorations litter the more than 60 miles of gently arcing sand in the national park.

Some of the junk is good for a laugh, like the lifejacket-clad snowman someone placed next to a plastic pumpkin, a small but real palm tree and an acoustic guitar. But it's no joke to wildlife workers who worr y the trash will harm birds and other animals, including an endangered turtle that nests there .

"It could have a huge impact," said Larry Turk, Padre Island maintenance chief.

The park wants to clean up as much debris as possible before the Kemp's Ridley turtles return, he said, because debris would make it hard for them to dig their nests.

For two weeks after Ike hit, every high tide seemed to dump debris on beaches. Two weeks into the cleanup, the amount of debris on Gulf beaches remains untallied.

One four -mile stretch produced enough to fill 2,970 industrial- size trash bags. Farther south at Cameron County's South Padre Island beaches, Ike's residue quickly filled seven 30-cubic-yard garbage bins.

Some of the Padre Island debris is the stuff of anyone's weekly garbage, including the garbage can itself. Some isn't : a sandbox in the shape of a green turtle, an octopus preserved in a jar.

No bodies have been found , although dozens of people are unaccounted for.

Cleaning up the national seashore is a federal responsibility, but local governments were relieved to be included in the federal disaster declaration, allowing them to seek cleanup reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That was not the case three years ago, when Rita smashed into western Louisiana and sent a flood of debris to South Texas beaches, said Javier Mendez, parks director for Cameron County. Mendez's department maintains about nine miles of beach on the island and seven miles along the coast south to the Mexican border.

"We just couldn't handle it," Mendez said of that earlier storm's debris.

This time Mendez is counting on federal reimbursement.

Some of the garbage is a hazard to the seashore's wildlife. The most obvious risk could be the countless small pieces of plastic that could be mistaken for food.

"The plastic is a real killer of both turtles and birds," said Joshua Rose, natural resource specialist for Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Gulls, terns and pelicans, not very discerning diners, can get tangled in larger pieces of plastic or get smaller pieces lodged in their digestive systems, Rose said.

At the national seashore, park rangers are going after the most immediate threats first, collecting plastic and steel barrels that could contain oil or hazardous chemicals. A hazardous-materials team scheduled a daylong expedition down the seashore this week.

Next, rangers will go for the big floating plastic bins that organize households.

Lumber is a lower priority, and beachcombers like David Michaelsen may end up grabbing most of it.

Michaelsen, 55, burned some vacation time to wander the debris field with tape measure in workglove-clad hands. He is building a greenhouse for his wife and started looking for materials along the 60-mile-long free rummage sale.

"I can take care of a few house projects ... and clean up the beach all in one afternoon," Michaelsen said after dropping a large plastic lid - a perfect drip pan for a leaky Jeep at home - into the bed of his pickup. "The way lumber costs anymore - and this is just lying here."


The frame of a guitar case is among the debris found on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas after Hurricane Ike. cleanup

One four-mile stretch of the national seashore in Texas produced enough refuse after the storm to fill 2,970 industrial-size trash bags. missing

No bodies have been found . Dozens of people remain unaccounted for.


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