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Damaged Wildlife Refuges are at Risk

  • June Soh

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books: 28 tropical storms, 15 of which developed into hurricanes that caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in the United States. The hurricanes also inflicted an estimated $270-million worth of damage to national wildlife refuges in eight states. These refuges -- which have not yet recovered from last year's storms -- are at risk of another big hit in the 2006 hurricane season that begins in less than a month. VOA's June Soh produced the story and it is narrated by Amy Katz.

Bulldozers flatten what is left of Holly Beach, once a prosperous tourist town, in the southern state of Louisiana.

Hurricane Rita's 185-kilometer per hour winds and three-meter high storm surge erased virtually everything in this town.

Commercial fisherman Carlton Delino owned a fish market and a house for 33 years. "This time I knew it was going to be a good [big] one. I have been on the water for all of my life. I kind of figured it was going to be a bad one. So, I salvaged all my crab pots and all my boats, and I pointed back to Holly Beach and said: 'Look at it for the last time. It's gone.' And I was right! It's wiped out."

Delino built a second home farther inland near the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-hectare wetland and habitat for waterfowl, migrating birds and reptiles. "Most of my junk is on their property. I had a 40-foot [12 meter] cooler [that landed in the refuge]. I just feel bad that it is sitting up there, and there is no way to retrieve it."

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge spokeswoman Diane Bordon-Billiot says the refuge contributed to the local economy with 300,000 visitors annually. But now it has been drastically transformed by Hurricane Rita.

"You had marshlands that were ripped apart. You have open water areas. We have debris containing people's homes and lives and industry particles like big 1,000 gallon [3,785 liters] tanks from the oil industry and every conceivable household product from people's homes along the coast."

Debris from the town and nearby oil refineries was scattered across 13,000 hectares of marsh grass and open water making the wetlands look more like a garbage dump. Grasses, usually green in the spring, were turned a dull, lifeless brown when the hurricane caused saltwater to flow into the marsh.

Refuge biologist Roy Walter says hazardous materials are a serious threat to the ecosystem and wildlife. Thousands of containers of oil, gasoline, propane, chlorine and bleach are part of the toxic stew slowly sinking into the marsh.

"As you know a lot of these areas are loaded with salt water and, of course, when you have a lot of metal containers, it mixes with salt and you throw in time and then those containers deteriorate that much faster. And so we want to get them out as quickly as we can so we can prevent a lot of these toxic materials going out into the habitat itself."

Sabine's cleanup cost estimates range from 10 to 50 million dollars. A bill authorizing $132 million to restore 66 storm-damaged refuges in eight states is slowly moving through the U.S. Congress.

But with the 2006 hurricane season less than a month away, Bordon-Billiot worries about lost time. She says wetland repair is more critical than ever. Marshes nurture plants and wildlife and are natural barriers that can soften the impact of the next storm.

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