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Trash cleanup in Mississippi could cost $1.4 billion

BILOXI, Miss.—Garbage is going to be big business in south Mississippi for a long time.

Cities and counties will hire contractors to clean up the slurry of dissolving walls, furniture, food and other debris that remains in decimated Gulf Coast neighborhoods.

While the trash represents shattered lives for residents, it means huge paychecks for the companies. Using the Federal Emergency Management Agency's formula and state estimates of the volume of garbage, scooping up and hauling off the debris could cost taxpayers as much as $1.4 billion—about $3,800 for every south Mississippi resident.

FEMA will reimburse at least 75 percent of that, but it can be tough for local governments to keep track of the work well enough that contractors won't take advantage of them. Frank Reddish, the emergency-management coordinator and manager of the Bureau of Recovery and Mitigation for Miami-Dade County, Fla., suggests that towns hire contractors to watch the garbage companies, which FEMA sometimes requires.

"The bigger the disaster, the more unsavory contractors come out," Reddish said in a phone interview from Miami. If contractors are being paid by the weight of the garbage they haul away, they might wet it so it's heavier, he said. If they're paid for filling up trucks, he added, they might "fluff it up."

And the FEMA rules are complicated. The agency won't reimburse local governments for the regular hours their public-works employees spend cleaning up debris, but if a contractor is hired, the total cost can be covered, Reddish said.

FEMA doesn't reimburse for initial cleanup on federal highways. Cities need to apply to the Federal Highway Administration for that.

Many towns with limited hurricane experience get caught in these pitfalls.

FEMA and the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommend that communities establish disaster-cleanup contracts before storms hit. It's uncertain how many local governments had such contracts.

Biloxi had a contractor on standby, but fired the company when it tried to demand more money after Hurricane Katrina hit. The second-lowest bidder was hired temporarily.

Harrison County, home to Biloxi and Gulfport, had been trying to set up a contract when Katrina landed.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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