CHALMETTE, LA. — Guiding his trawler down the bayou, Ray Brandhurst points out a buoy that marks a sunken shipping container. On the other side of the channel, a pole marks another sunken container.
"Until recently, it was like a maze coming through here," he says. So many sunken shrimp boats, pleasure craft, and land debris choked the waterways that navigation was nearly impossible. At the peak of the cleanup, "they were pulling up two or three boats a day," he says.
Many are still puzzled about why it took so long to get the bayous cleared so shrimpers could work again. Opinion is split over whether US agencies or local officials are to blame. Most people on the water agree the delay was costly. "The delays kept a lot of shrimpers from getting out to make a living," says food consultant August Schumacher, a former US Department of Agriculture (USDA) official. "No one could figure it out. It just seemed like a lot of confusion."
Congress authorized money to get the job done. The problem is that debris removal on the water is a "gray area," says Jacob Roche, an aide to Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) of Louisiana. The US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for "navigable" waterways. "But a lot of the best shrimp grounds are not in what the Corps considers navigable waters," he says.
That left the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The USDA said it didn't have the expertise or the authority to take on the job. "No one was looking at ways not to do something," says Don Gohmert, a state conservationist with USDA. "These kinds of discussions and deliberations are not unusual as we try to sort things out."
NOAA normally works in US-designated navigable waters. After Katrina, it surveyed bays and state waters to locate debris. "We don't have the resources to do a wholesale cleanup," says spokesman Ben Sherman.
Once FEMA agreed to pay for debris removal, a process executed by the US Coast Guard, local officials couldn't find a place to put the boats and debris.
Getting boats out of the water quickly was vital. Says Mr. Brandhurst, "[I] worked my tail off" to raise Four Winds, his boat, six days after the storm. Boats pulled out late were ruined. "They have ... barnacles growing on them, the machinery is shot, and in many cases the hull is compromised," he says. "If they'd been on the ball sooner, they could have saved a lot of grief."