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Evidence of Lives Cut Adrift

Times Staff Writer

The surge of water that engulfed parts of Iberia Parish four weeks ago 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. This week, 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 last Saturday and continued to drift in all 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, La., 490 miles away.

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.

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One plume of debris curved west to reach the Texas shore. A second -- 7 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 could also wash ashore in Cornwall, or Cocoa Beach, 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.

This comes as no surprise to 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 bring himself to 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.”

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Sailors and scientists have long studied the way objects travel across the ocean. In the 1830s, the British and American navies dropped hundreds of thousands of messages in bottles, hoping to map ocean currents, said Ebbesmeyer, 52, who edits the journal Beachcombers’ Alert.

By the 1970s, scientists were using satellites to trace the progress of electronic buoys, and permanent features of the gulf of Mexico came into focus. At its southern edge, a hoop-shaped flow of warm water known as the Loop Current circulates clockwise, moving in and out of the Gulf. To its north are eddies that have broken off the loop and spin clockwise, generally drifting west.

“There are streams within the big mass,” said Mitchell Roffer, a Miami oceanographer. “We think of the ocean as a big bathtub, but there are different water masses that pull in different directions. Some of this water is being pulled off in tendrils and taken away.”

Roffer, 56, owns Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service, which tracks ocean currents by satellite for commercial fishermen and the oil industry. During off hours, he likes to walk the beach looking for objects that give clues to their origin, such as “seabeans” that ride currents from South America. For weeks after Katrina, Roffer patrolled the beach in Miami on the wild hope that he would find a street sign from Bourbon Street. “Forensic oceanography,” he calls it.

Debbie and Boogie Barrios, too, found themselves 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 once stood; dry, cracked mud coated their 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 could not concentrate long enough to read, to sleep, even to stand in line at the store for very long. But she found herself calmed by the afternoons spent in the field of debris. Climbing back into the flatbottomed boat, she carried only a wooden decoy -- so intricately carved that each pinfeather stuck out.

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

Sometimes she almost felt there were messages in the random objects. She remarked to her husband one day that she wished she had a camera, and looked down to see a disposable camera, still in its wrapper. Another time, when Boogie, 54, seemed suddenly despairing, he looked down to see a small round ball painted with a smiley-face. They would talk about that moment for days.

“It drew chills through us -- not my back, but my skull. To ask for it and it’s right there in front of you,” said Debbie, 53. “I felt like I was in the ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

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 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 for the first signs of the hurricanes. Yow found a casino cup from Bay St. Louis and two strings of Mardi Gras beads.

“We do know there will probably be some things we do not want to find,” said Yow, 53. “I’m sure we’re going to be finding household items and maybe even body parts.”

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 still attached.

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“When I got there, I said, ‘My God almighty, what happened here,’ ” he said. “I tell you what, it must have been a booger bear. 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 away debris. Hathcock, who has written three books about treasure-hunting, was astounded.

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

Hathcock put off visiting the beach until Wednesday, when he walked for several hours, finding a flight of stairs, 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.

On Friday, the flow began to abate. With the right current and wind, debris could continue traveling through the western gulf toward Mexico.

The other finger of debris continues to move slowly to the southeast. Snatched offshore by the Loop Current, the debris extends from the Louisiana coastline to the Florida Keys, Roffer said.

If its course is not interrupted, the line of debris will float south around the tip of Florida and be picked up by the Gulf Stream, which will carry it north “like a giant river, like 100 Amazons,” Ebbesmeyer said. It will move past Florida’s eastern beaches in October and November, just as strong east winds begin to blow, he said; that is when Floridians will begin to see some of the debris on their beaches.

It is the same month, Ebbesmeyer said, that debris from December’s tsunami will reach the shore of East Africa.

In Cocoa Beach, Fla., Margie Mitchell is watching and waiting. Mitchell, 51, has a part-time job with the public works department, cleaning a six-mile stretch of the beach. Shortly after Katrina hit New Orleans, she wrote to Ebbesmeyer and asked what kind of things she should expect to find.

“He said, ‘Picture a house that opened up and spilled its guts into the ocean,’ ” Mitchell said.

She goes out five days a week, looking for traces of the storm, but they have not come yet. Which is fine with Mitchell.

“I do kind of dread seeing it,” she said.

Most likely, though, the debris river will keep moving north. The Gulf Stream curves to the east in the North Atlantic, oriented toward Europe, and bits of debris from Katrina and Rita may wash up somewhere between Spain and Cornwall, England, sometime next year, Ebbesmeyer said.

As it passes that way, though, some of the debris will be pulled hard in another direction: into the strange calm of the Sargasso Sea, a huge, warm stretch of ocean almost the size of a continent, named for the mats of seaweed that drift on its surface. It is an intensely blue body of water, deep and almost devoid of life.

Seafarers have long told tales of ships that were lost in the doldrums of the Sargasso Sea. Although ships are no longer becalmed in it, debris is sucked in with no current to pull it out; as the sea rotates slowly, so do the particles within it.

Here, oceanographers say, some of the flotsam of the storm season -- beads, water bottles, tarps -- will remain. They will spin there for decades, breaking into ever-smaller particles, washing up every now and then in Bermuda.


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