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Wednesday, November 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hurricanes' debris travels world

Los Angeles Times

NEW IBERIA, La. — The surge of water that engulfed parts of Iberia Parish in September tore shrimp boats from their moorings, wrenched the stairs off porches and lifted children's toys out of their yards. Residents spent the next weeks cataloging objects that seemed to have vanished.

But they have not vanished; they have moved to other places. In mid-October, while walking on the white-sand beach of South Padre Island, Texas, a beachcomber picked up a waterlogged wad of paper and found a guide to real estate in New Iberia, located across 423 miles of open water to the northeast.

The book was part of a huge, floating cluster of objects that began washing ashore more than a month after Hurricane Katrina and continued to drift in for a week.

At first it was just a tangle of bamboo and marsh grass, but then larger things washed up: railroad ties, the backboard to a basketball hoop, part of a retaining wall and a flour sack printed with the name of a ship docked at Grand Isle 490 miles away.

Riding the currents

When the surges from hurricanes Katrina and Rita receded to open water, they launched millions of pieces of debris on a journey through the ocean.

One plume of debris curved west to reach the Texas shore. A second — seven miles wide and 300 miles long — is moving at the speed of a fast jog around the southern tip of Florida, where it will be picked up and carried north by the powerful current of the Gulf Stream.

That debris could rotate slowly in the North Atlantic for 30 years; it also could wash ashore in Cornwall, England, or Cocoa Beach, Fla., said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer who studies objects floating in the ocean. Either way, debris from Katrina and Rita will be appearing on beaches all over the world for a long time.

Comfort in scavenging

This doesn't surprise Steve Hathcock, who runs a small beachcomber's museum a block and a half from the beach on South Padre Island. Hathcock, 54, likes nothing more than walking the beach with a metal detector. But when he heard the debris from New Orleans had begun to wash ashore, he couldn't go see it.

"If you realize where it's coming from, it's a real sense of destruction," he said. "I'd have the same feelings taking pennies out of a dead man's eyes."

Debbie and Boogie Barrios were drawn to the debris, and the mysteries attached to it.

Returning to their home in Hopedale, at the watery edge of Bayou LaLoutre, 30 miles east of New Orleans, they found a desolate scene.

Bare pilings poked out of the water where houses had once stood; dry, cracked mud coated neighbors' front lawns. The neighbors were gone. It was just the two of them.

Because they are water people — he a fisherman, she a fisherman's daughter — they climbed into a boat and began searching for their things.

What they found, tangled in a long, straight ridge of marsh grass and tree limbs on the other side of the canal, were other people's things, things from Delacroix Island, a fishing community that lies to the southwest, across eight miles of bayou.

There were disco balls and orange prescription bottles, lace curtains, colanders, a 10-iron, an ornamental cannon set in concrete, the stuffed and mounted heads of two stags.

After the strain of trying to piece together a life for her family, Debbie Barrios could not concentrate long enough to read, to sleep, even to stand in line at the store for very long. But she was calmed by the afternoons spent in the field of debris.

Climbing back into the flat-bottomed boat, she carried only a wooden decoy, so intricately carved that each pinfeather stood out.

"My curiosity just kills me," she said. "I want to know what's out there. Who does this belong to?"

In the days after Katrina, a mass of debris began to spread into the Gulf, east toward Florida and west toward Texas. The runoff from Rita slid mostly to the west.

Within a week, fishermen to the west of the mouth of the Mississippi were navigating through fence posts, refrigerators, and in one case, the front door of a house, said Charles Burnell, who sends trawlers out from Brownsville, Texas.

By Oct. 9, debris had reached Galveston, Texas, where Cathy Yow was scanning the beach. Yow found a casino cup from Bay St. Louis and two strings of Mardi Gras beads. Since then, she has approached the beach with dread.

"We do know there will probably be some things we do not want to find," said Yow, 53.

Daunting treasure

On Oct. 15, debris began to wash up in South Padre Island. When he showed up for work Monday morning, Buddy Roberts, Isla Blanca park manager, found seven miles of beach covered with debris.

His workers found barbecue pits, life jackets, large metal containers, boat trailer ties, a boat with its motor attached.

"When I got there, I said, 'My God almighty, what happened here?' " he said. "... There's no telling where all it might end up."

By midweek, prisoners from the Cameron County Jail had fanned out across the beach to help with the cleanup; trucks lined up to haul debris away. Hathcock, who has written three books about treasure-hunting, was astounded.

"You look out there and the ocean is just carpeted with this stuff. There's no markings of where it came from, but it's all drifting together. It's just coming down around the coast," he said.

Hathcock put off visiting the beach until last Wednesday, when he walked for several hours, finding a flight of stairs ("leading nowhere, of course," he said), a sandal and a single black boot. There was a strong smell of rotting vegetation.

"People's dreams and hopes and tears are all mixed in there," he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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