HANCOCK COUNTY - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is telling local leaders June 30 will be the last day they will remove Hurricane Katrina-related debris in this pummeled county, though officials say the job is far from over.
John Martin, a Corps of Engineers debris specialist, told officials in Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the county to begin making plans to take over the job once the agency quits.
"As of the 30th of June, I'm no longer allowed to pick up debris," Martin said.
On Monday the Corps of Engineers asked the Hancock Board of Supervisors to set a local deadline for property owners to have their storm-related debris pushed to the roadside so rubble haulers can make one last pass.
The agency made the same request Tuesday of officials in the Bay and Waveland. So far, none of the entities has set such a date.
"Don't pack your bags just yet," Bay Mayor Eddie Favre told Corps of Engineers officials.
Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo said more than 20 percent of Katrina wreckage still clutters the county.
"This is the next big tragedy that's being bestowed on our people," Longo said.
The federal government has been funding 100 percent of the debris removal since the Aug. 29 storm. All Mississippi counties designated under President Bush's emergency disaster declaration are eligible for the assistance.
The deadline for 100 percent federal funding is currently June 30. After the deadline, local and state governments will have to pay 10 percent of the cost and the federal government will fund 90 percent of the work until at least August 28.
Eugene Brezany, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency reached a joint decision with state officials to end the Corps of Engineers' debris mission.
"We are nearing the end of the debris-removal process and we are completely confident that the local communities will be able to handle the debris removal," Brezany said. "Especially with 90 percent of it funded by the feds."
If the Corps of Engineers follows through on its plans, local governments will also need to find workers.
"For nine months, the corps has been historically eloquent at telling you what you want to hear and doing something else," Longo said. "We were under the impression that even when the job went to 90-10 the corps would remain here to finish the work."
FEMA reopened the right-of-entry process earlier this month, which allows federal workers to clean private property. But that was only to remove "structural debris," which seems to have a debatable definition.
For example, all that's left of Trapani's Eatery on the beach in Bay St. Louis is a pile of rubble. But the federal government won't haul it away because technically it's no longer a structure.
"Trapani's doesn't qualify because it's not a structure and FEMA says it will only remove hazardous debris," Favre said. "To me, all of the debris is hazardous."
Neighbors say a toppled house and debris-choked lot on Bay Oaks Drive, which has not been touched since the storm, is home to dozens of rats. And there are about 3,000 other damaged properties that have been abandoned throughout the county.
The Corps of Engineers wants the county to come up with a plan to condemn the properties once the corps quits.
"We can make a plan, but the fact remains that this county is not capable of funding a cleanup if the corps pulls out," Ronnie Artigues, the county's attorney, told Corps of Engineers officials this week.
Regardless of whether it's broken trees or crushed houses, local officials say there is still a lot of debris left to remove and until the job is done, the recovery here is nowhere near complete.
"We are the hardest-hit county and in other places people are already talking about rebuilding," Longo said. "But we are going to be in recovery a whole lot longer."