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Cleanup is slowed by property rights

The government has not removed the Gulf Coast's remaining hurricane wreckage, enough to stack 2 miles high onto a football field, because it must respect private property rights, federal officials say.

Local officials say the delay could hamper public safety during the current hurricane season.

Ten months after Hurricane Katrina, about one-sixth of the debris that littered the Gulf Coast remains - an estimated 20-million cubic yards. Much of the rubble is from damaged homes and businesses that the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it cannot clear away without approval from property owners and insurers.

"It's a mess and it's dangerous in the storm season," said Marnie Winter, environmental director in Jefferson Parish, La., which borders New Orleans and extends to the Gulf of Mexico.

"We just need to get all the stuff up so we can try to get back to normal 10 months after Katrina," Winter said.

The federal agency now is considering whether to continue paying the full cost of removing debris in the disaster area; the program is set to end on Friday.

Officials in cash-strapped New Orleans and surrounding parishes said this week they want the deadline extended. Without the extra aid, Washington will pay for 90 percent of debris removal cost and local governments 10 percent.

FEMA estimates it has paid $3.6-billion for the Army Corps of Engineers and private contractors to remove about 98.6-million cubic yards of debris from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Most of it has been on streets, sidewalks, curbs and other public property.

Nearly all the remaining wreckage is in Louisiana and Mississippi, said James Walke, who oversees debris issues for FEMA's public assistance division. The agency is waiting for local officials to clear building demolitions with property owners.

"It's private property," Walke said. "We can't go on folks' property without their permission. That's one of the values that we hold dear in our democracy. There are due process considerations."

Walke said the "time has long passed" that the remaining rubble was an imminent safety threat.

Both sides agree the problem largely stems from thousands of hurricane evacuees who have not returned to their abandoned homes and approved demolition.

As many as 15,000 buildings are to be demolished once authorities get permission from property owners, corps officials said. The removal will be "a long, drawn-out affair," said Allen Morse, corps debris removal expert.

"People are coming back slowly and spottily when demolition decisions need to be made," Morse said.