Beach Blues

Video: Beach Debris

August 31, 2006
Biloxi, Miss.

Standing on the beach along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is like looking at a big piece of cake, expensive car, or beautiful home you love, but know you can't have.

Some stretches of sand are open, but the waters are off-limits. The Gulf is closed because debris from Hurricane Katrina still litters the sandy bottom, much of it buried just below the surface where you might not spot it before it slices through your foot.

Crews are working to clear 40 miles of shoreline in a job that could last well into next year. They began by wading out in a line of 20 to 40 men, hand-carrying stuff back to the beach.

Now, they're using modified mini-tractors that look like a cross between a riding lawn mower and an airboat. The driver perches high above an open metal frame with diesel-powered wheels on tracks, and a big metal basket with a rake on the front to scoop up the pieces of wood, branches, and twisted metal sitting in the first few inches of sand along the Gulf floor.

The so-called water rakes, or "mud bugs," are clearing the water out to 600 feet, stopping when the depth reaches four feet. They cart the debris in and drop it in piles on the beach, where front-end loaders cart it to dump trucks, which haul everything off to a local landfill. I saw a bathtub, two sinks, a couple of air conditioners, a lawn chair, and a couple tires in one of the piles.

The state's Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard are supervising the project, which is costing an estimated $25 million in just one of the three counties affected. The current phase should wrap up this October, but then the plan is to work the deeper waters up to four miles out. This will prevent the current from easily carring debris back into the areas now being cleared.

There is an estimated one million cubic yards of Katrina wreckage in the Gulf, and until it gets cleaned out, it's simply not safe to go swimming or even wading in the murky water.

The decision on when to fully reopen the beaches is up to the individual counties, cities, and towns — and until they do, tourism will continue to suffer.

August 30, 2006
Biloxi, Miss.
Video: Bird's-Eye View

We took a chopper ride this morning over the Mississippi Gulf Coast to document the progress being made with the clean-up and rebuilding. We had flew up and down the coast a year ago as well, just a few days after Katrina hit, and wanted to compare and contrast then and now.

Our pilot Chuck took the right side door off the Long Ranger helicopter and we strapped ourselves in. My photographer Mayer and I sat across from each other in front of the open door, and my producer Ian sat next to Mayer with a smaller PD-150 video camera for additional footage.

It's hot here, but the open door gave us a nice breeze inside. The skies were clear and there was almost no wind, so the ride was smooth and the visibility was great.

We spent just under two hours in the air, flying east from Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport to Ocean Springs. We did a U-turn just past the Highway 90 bridge and followed the beach all the way to Waveland on the other side of Bay St Louis, then came back again over the railroad tracks, separating most of what survived the storm from most of what didn't.

There's no question tremendous progress has been made. Many of the structures that weren't knocked down by the storm surge are either completely rehabilitated or currently being restored.

Virtually, all of the piles of rubble and debris have been carted off and the empty lots have been cleaned up. In some cases, new homes have been finished or are now under construction.

The white sand beaches south of the coastal highway, once littered with chunks of homes and people's possessions, have been scrubbed clean. The Gulf waters still contain hazards — crews with skimmers and backhoes are scooping jagged metal and bits of wood off the bottom.

The Coast Guard is supervising the clean-up of the Gulf, critical to the area's tourism industry, but it's not clear when folks can go back in the water.

In the meantime, all those casino barges that once littered the landscape have been cut up and hauled away, with glittering new buildings now open on dry land.

I talked to one man who has been living in a trailer on his mom's property since last October while he rebuilds a new home nearby. I asked if he has gotten used to his new surroundings, and he told me no. He said it's too small inside, so he keeps bumping into things, but still, he wasn't complaining. Few people here are.

E-mail Rick