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Hazardous Materials from 2005 Hurricane Sink into Wildlife Refuge as New Season Arrives

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season had a record 28 tropical storms, 15 of which developed into hurricanes. Among them was the most expensive storm ever, Hurricane Katrina, which caused more than 80 billion dollars in damage to New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast. The storms of 2005 also inflicted an estimated 270-million dollars worth of damage to national wildlife refuges in eight states. These refuges - which have not yet recovered from last year - are at risk of another big hit from the 2006 hurricane season that begins on the first of June.

All that is left of Carlton Delino's house in Holly Beach, Louisiana, is a cement slab. The 185-kilometer winds and three-meter high storm surge from Hurricane Rita erased Delano's 3-bedroom home, his fish market and much of the rest of this small tourist town. A commercial fisherman and 33-year resident of Holly Beach, Delino had the good sense to leave before the storm hit.

"I have been on the water for all of my life," Delino says. "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! '"

On this day, bulldozers flatten what is left of Holly Beach. Delino long ago tired of calls for evacuation. He built a second home about 45 minutes farther inland, north of where the hurricane had swept the debris from the Louisiana coast.

His new home is near the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-hectare wetland and habitat for waterfowl, migrating birds and marsh mammals, such as white tailed deer, otter and mink. He says that's where Hurricane Rita deposited most of his possessions, including a 40-foot [12 meter] cooler, by no fault of his own. "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 wetland landscape was brutally transformed by Hurricane Rita. "You had marsh lands that were ripped apart," she says. "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 was scattered across 13,000 hectares of marsh grass and open water. In spots debris is so thick and so high that the wetlands look more like a garbage dump. Grasses usually green in the spring were turned a dull, lifeless brown by saltwater intrusion. That saltwater would normally be flushed out by rain, but the region has been experiencing a drought.

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," he says. "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."

Bordon-Billiot agrees that the marsh can recover if the hazardous materials are removed. "It will heal itself," she says. "We will get the worst things out first, and as funds are available, we will get out as much of the other non-hazardous debris as possible while the funds last."

Sabine is a National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Funds to restore it must come from the federal government. Cleanup cost estimates range from $10 million to $50 million. 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 lessen the impact of the next storm.

Click here for more images of Holly Beach, Louisiana and Sabine National Wildlife Refuge seven months after Hurricane Rita