Two days after Hurricane Isaac slammed into the Gulf Coast, I heard reports that the beaches in Southern Mississippi were closed because storm debris had washed ashore. My initial hunch told me there was more to the story that wasn’t being told to the public.
- Could there be tar logs from the BP Deepwater Horizon?
- Legitimate debris, like coolers, beach chairs or fishing equipment?
- Or something more sinister?
As someone not inclined to sit on the sidelines and speculate from a point of ignorance, I decided to check things out myself.
At first light Thursday, August 30th, I made my way to the Washington Street Pier in Bay St. Louis, MS. The pier, which I had fished from two weeks prior, was all but destroyed. While photographing the wreckage I crossed paths with a two person survey crew that had been contracted by Hancock County to assess the storm damage from the US Hwy 90 Bridge in Bay St. Louis, south to the Silver Slipper Casino in Waveland, MS, approximately 7.5 miles.
I was cautioned to watch out for nests of water moccasins in the sea grass and dead nutria rats (aka, nutra rats, river rats, beaver rats, and little beavers) scattered along the waterfront. It didn’t take long for me to discover the first river rat, which quickly turned into hundreds, and then thousands of bloated carcasses. Interspersed with the nutra were coyotes, wild hogs, pelicans and egrets.
It was a macabre scene reminiscent of the D-Day aftermath at Normandy Beach during World War II. The sickly sweet stench of death was everywhere.
Originally native to South America, nutria, a semi-aquatic rodent, were introduced to the Gulf Coast in the 1930’s by fur ranchers for their pelts. There numbers had been kept in check until a hurricane in the 1940’s destroyed an enclosed wetland area and they escaped into the wild. They are now classified as an invasive species due to their prolific ability to breed and their destructive feeding and burrowing behaviors.
Ever mindful of snakes and exploding carcasses, I shadowed the surveyors for several hours before crossing paths with representatives from the US Coast Guard and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) responsible for developing the carcass removal strategy. At the time, it was estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 rodents had washed ashore.
A week later, on September 6th, I returned to area and with the on-scene representative from the EPA’s Emergency Response and Removal Branch to get an operational overview of the removal efforts. He reported that the MDEQ had increased its estimate to 18,000 carcasses and that 100 cubic yards (or 24-tons) of nutria had been removed from four miles of beach by a federal contractor.
The contractor had two separate crews, outfitted in tyvek suits, pitchforking stacks of nutria into front loaders, which in turned dumped the carcasses into plastic lined dumpsters for disposal at a landfill site specifically designed for household hazards.
I made several attempts to photograph the desiccated nutria carcasses in the dumpsters, but was completely overwhelmed by the stench; to the extent that my gag reflex kicked in and I lost my breakfast, and lunch.
You know something is rotten when even the vultures stay away.