Sabine debris cleanup underway

September 20, 2006
By Theresa Schmidt

Hurricane Rita transformed pristine Sabine National Wildlife Refuge into a sea of debris...creating hazards to people, wildlife and the environment. As well,  saltwater came in killing a lot of the vegetation and animals... It was heartbreaking to biologist Diane Borden-Billiot who has devoted much of her career to the refuge. "At that time I'd say, 'Oh man. This marsh-- it's going to take a hundred years to fix.' And after the storm it was silent. It was like being in a dark room with no sound at all. It was like, lights out, quiet. And now, we're back to crickets and frogs and birds and we're hearing the wildlife again and we're seeing it and the marshes look beautiful."

Removing debris is a massive undertaking. But what at first seemed so overwhelming is becoming manageable. Plans are in place and crews are in the marsh hard at work... "They are cleaning, they are in the midst of the bulk of the cleanup. I mean we are three, four weeks into the cleanup and they've got over forty pieces of equipment and a hundred people out there removing items as we speak. The machines come in, they pick it up, the load it on air boats and then the air boats move it to a collection site where it's actually loaded by a crane and onto a truck and then hauled to a collection area along Highway 27 where it's removed for proper disposal."

And they are making progress... At debris collection sites refrigerators as far as the eye can see... Systems in place to identify and properly handle a wide range of hazardous containers that come in all sizes. Diane says the marsh is healing.... "We are also seeing life revitalize the marsh. Alligators are moving around, birds are coming in. We also have some of our fall migrants. The blue wing teal are already here and using the refuge. So, I'm really pleased with the way the marsh has already begun to heal itself."

Even after cleanup much work remains... Building roads, rest rooms and other facilities destroyed by Rita. But it's hoped the major cleanup effort will wrap up by the end of this year. Officials say Sabine will remain closed until it's safe for people. But they hope to have parts open to the public by next summer.  For more details on refuge cleanup and other issues click here.