‘Retirees’ among legions cleaning up|[08/27/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 27, 2007

NEW ORLEANS – Mention &#8220burrito wrap” to Harry Brown or Harry Denton and Mexican food is not what comes to mind.

Brown has been one of a legion of Corps of Engineers &#8220retired annuitants” working along with contractors, like Denton, who is also from Vicksburg, removing debris from streets and rights of way here, sometimes taking down and hauling away as many as three houses a day.

Thousands of homes – ranging from shacks to mansions – have been removed. Two years later, there are a few hundred to go. About half have been taken down by owners with no government help. The other half have been removed under the auspices of the Recovery Field Office of the Corps, which is expected to close out its operations at the end of September.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

A &#8220burrito wrap” refers to the layering of thick clear plastic into a dump container 8 feet wide and at least 20 feet long.

When advance inspections indicate the presence of asbestos or other toxic materials, and most do, a step-by-step approach is taken.

First, the area is taped off to stop any vehicular or pedestrian traffic. Next, workers don Tyvek protective suits, breathing masks and even booties. Then, a stream of water is sprayed over the house or the debris to keep down dust and asbestos fibers, which can lodge in lungs if airborne and inhaled.

The water keeps spraying as loaders lift load after load into the dump containers. As each container is filled, it is winched up on a truck and driven a few yards forward and parked between scaffolds. There, more workers layer and seal the plastic sheets so nothing blows out while the truck is driven to one of three sites for waste processing.

Candidly, Jack McGrew, a retired annuitant working at another site, said the many of the roadside debris piles would represent only a few minutes’ work for &#8220a couple of country boys with shovels,” but there’s a prescribed procedure to be followed and McGrew said he knows it’s for safety. Everybody has a hard hat. Everybody has steel-toed boots. Everybody wears an orange vest and eye protection. One crew member’s total responsibility is to keep a constant watch and sound a hand-held air horn if any safety violation is spotted.

The result, said Nolan Raphelt, who is normally assigned to the Vicksburg District of the Corps but has been serving as area engineer for the debris project, is 4 million work hours without a serious injury. &#8220That’s a lot of contractors working hard to enforce the safety of their crews,” Raphelt said. &#8220We had one fatality early-on and it was really sad. As we get toward the end of things, we’ve had to restress safety.”

McGrew hails from the Mahannah area north of Vicksburg. He was career military and then a federal civilian employee for a total of 37 years. Katrina brought him back and he works daily in right-of-way clearing as a quality assurance supervisor. That has him on the streets of New Orleans every day, picking up debris that has been hauled to the roadside.

Daily sweeps aren’t generating as much as they did, down to 4,000 to 6,000 cubic yards a day from 100,000 cubic yards a day at the peak of cleanup. In all, if the lid were taken off the Superdome, the debris-clearing crews could have filled it bottom to top six times.

That is making days easier for most, including project engineer John Myers, who retired from the Vicksburg District in 2002 and has been in New Orleans since the days immediately after the storm.

Myers’ memories will center on the reactions of property owners – always unpredictable. &#8220People come out when they see us working,” he said. &#8220Some are glad to see us, and some are not happy if we’re on their property. For some reason they don’t want their property cleaned up.”

The work, Brown said, is rewarding. He was also career military, serving in the Air Force. Then he became deputy director of Equal Employment Opportunity for the Vicksburg District and, before retiring in 1999, was EEO director for the Mississippi Valley Division.

Brown was on an early crew after the storm, cleaning out the London Avenue Canal. He went back to Vicksburg, then volunteered to provide some vacation relief during the Christmas holidays.

&#8220I was on my deer stand when I got the call,” he said. He reported to daily process as a quality assurance inspector.

In time, he’s seen changes.

&#8220When I first got down here this time it was still quiet. No people, no streetlights, no sounds,” he said. Incrementally, he said, people are coming back. &#8220The property owners, I believe all of them will come back,” he said. Renters are another matter entirely.

Due to the cost of construction, at least double what it was before the storm, rental properties are not yet feasible for investors. That may explain why 166,000 of the 455,000 who lived in Orleans Parish when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, still live somewhere else.

Michael Logue is another retired annuitant. His name and his face are familiar because for a generation he was chief of public affairs for the Vicksburg District.

Logue, also an author, has been working with the international media interested in Katrina on its second birthday. He coordinates all information released to the public by the Recovery Field Office.

It’s the mission of Henry Bordelon, who retired from the Mississippi Valley Division after 30 years in 2002 to &#8220work the money issues” and there are lots of them. A third supplemental appropriation was approved by Congress earlier this month, adding $1.36 billion and pushing the total for New Orleans efforts to more than $7 billion. &#8220We have 300-plus contracts to do this work,” Bordelon said. The standard all personnel have met is 10 hours a day, six days a week. &#8220And you have to have a good communication plan,” Bordelon added.

The chief of the entire Recovery Field Office is also a retired annuitant. Mike Smith, who started his Katrina-related mission the week after the storm hit, was initially tasked with constructing something that has never been used to its potential – the Disaster Mortuary Facility near Baton Rouge.

&#8220You have to remember, we had a 20,000 fatality forecast,” he said. Federal engineers quickly established an 18,720-square-foot morgue on a 32-acre site that could also house 400 workers.

It was grim enough that 1,577 people did lose their lives in the storm, but there were another 1,100 &#8220disturbed burials” – caskets popping up out of the ground and floating up to 28 miles inland from the coast.

Still, Smith said, everyone considered it great news that the morgue’s capacity – identifying up to 150 bodies a day – never became necessary.

Now his job is to wind things up. Even though there’s a lot of work left to do, it will be taken up by local authorities, other Corps entities and other state and federal agencies.

&#8220A lot of people don’t think about it these days,” he said, &#8220but historically the Corps hasn’t done civilian relief.”

Katrina has changed that, probably forever. The mission isn’t over, but it is ending. &#8220My job is to shrink the footprint of the RFO and close it out,” he said.