WASHINGTON – Massive amounts of hurricane wreckage — if piled atop a football field it would reach almost two miles into the air — remain on the Gulf Coast. Yet the Bush administration says it can't clear it quickly without trampling private property rights.
Local officials say that, with hurricane season under way, the delay could hamper another government duty: public safety.
Ten months after Hurricane Katrina, about one-sixth of the debris that littered Gulf Coast communities remains — an estimated 20 million cubic yards. Much of the rubble is from damaged homes and businesses that the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it cannot clear away without first getting approval from property owners and insurers.
"We're in hurricane season now and the stuff is going to go flying all over if we have another storm," said Marnie Winter, environmental director in Jefferson Parish, La., which borders New Orleans and extends to the Gulf of Mexico. "We need to get this up and stop quibbling over whether it's eligible."
The controversy comes as FEMA considers whether to continue paying the full cost of removing debris in the hurricane disaster area, a program slated to end Friday.
Local officials in New Orleans and surrounding parishes called Tuesday for extending the deadline, calling themselves cash-strapped as they try to manage other priorities. Without the extra aid, Washington will pay for 90 percent of debris removal cost, with local governments picking up the remaining 10 percent.
FEMA estimates it has so far paid $3.6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers and private contractors to remove about 98.6 million cubic yards of debris from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Most of it has been on streets, sidewalks, curbs and other public property.
Nearly all the remaining wreckage is in Louisiana and Mississippi, said James Walke, who oversees debris issues for FEMA's public assistance division. The agency is waiting for local officials to clear building demolitions with property owners — what Walke called "a slow process."
"It's private property," Walke said. "We can't go on folks' property without their permission — that's one of the values that we hold dear in our democracy. There are due process considerations."
Asked about safety concerns the remaining rubble poses, Walke said, "I think any imminent threats that requires swift action — that time has long passed."
Both sides agree the problem largely stems from thousands of hurricane evacuees who have yet to return to their abandoned homes and approve demolition.
As many as 15,000 buildings are slated for demolition once local authorities gain property owners' permission, Corps officials said. The removal will all but certainly be "a long, drawn-out affair," said Allen Morse, the Corps' debris removal expert.
"People are coming back slowly and spottily when demolition decisions need to be made," Morse said.
FEMA expects the process to pick up this summer, when displaced evacuees who were waiting for their children's' school years to end can make their way back home. Walke also noted that state and local laws may allow demolitions or debris removal from private property.
But legal and political science scholars said FEMA at least should use its records of evacuees' disaster benefits to more actively seek their approval, since the agency can locate them more easily than local officials.
Daniel Aldrich, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, said the federal government has constitutional authority to operate on private property in extreme cases.
"If there were debris on someone's private property and the individual didn't want to deal with it or couldn't be reached, it certainly would be in the purview of the federal government to overrule private property rights for the sake of the public good," Aldrich said.
Local officials say they, too, are trying to wait for property owners to return before plowing ahead with demolitions. But the safety concerns are pressing.
In Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, which also borders New Orleans, the process of contacting and gaining permission from property owners and insurers generally takes two months to complete, said emergency director Larry Ingargiola. He estimated that 15,000 of the nearly 70,000 people who lived the parish before Katrina hit have returned.
"If we get a tropical storm with all of this lying around we're going to have rockets all over the place," Ingargiola said. "If it hits anything, it's going to cause serious damage. Injuries too."