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A month later, cargo containers causing a stink in Gulfport

GULFPORT, Miss.—Almost a month after Hurricane Katrina tossed around a slew of giant shipping containers that ruined a Gulf Coast neighborhood, authorities and residents disagree over who's responsible for removing them.

The containers, some filled with costly, spoiled cargo, were pushed inland by Katrina's wind and storm surge and have yet to be salvaged. The containers belonging to Crowley Liner Services, Dole and Chiquita blocked roads, crushed homes and destroyed businesses. Today, they still fill a beach neighborhood north of the port. And worst of all, many of them stink to high heaven.

Restaurant owner Bill Vrazel, who hopes to reopen his damaged family business quickly, got fed up with the 14 containers clogging his parking lot. So he paid a contractor to rid his property of the hulking, stinking metal boxes.

City leaders want the companies to remove their own debris. Port officials say they can't move equipment they don't own. And a spokesman for one company said it only received permission Tuesday afternoon from Gulfport officials to start cleaning up.

So it remains unclear who will move the containers and when.

"There is so much to do, we don't want to be slowed down," Vrazel said. "That port ought to start one week ahead of time and move (the containers) to the other side of the tracks. This happened in Camille. There ought to be a lesson in this."

Last weekend, a backhoe tugged and dragged containers away from Vrazel's Fine Food Restaurant on Beach Boulevard. But a mangled container with mysterious rotting cargo still sits in an empty lot next to Bobbie Hawkins' shattered home on Rich Avenue.

The container destroyed a neighbor's house before landing in the middle of the road. It was later pushed into the side yard when the roads were cleared, Hawkins said.

"That came from the port. They should come get it. They have the trucks and the equipment," Hawkins said. "It smelled so bad, I almost threw up."

The port does not own the containers or other equipment and can't remove them, said Don Allee, executive director of the Port of Mississippi at Gulfport. Dole, Chiquita and Crowley moved as many containers as they could before the storm worsened and the port halted operations, he said.

"It's unfortunate they have containers in places other than our property. But that's the reality," Allee said. "I am confident that each of the container lines has a strategy for removing their products."

Dole is committed to working with property owners quickly to remove its containers and has been talking to port officials, said Dennis Kelly, vice president of port operations for Dole.

Chiquita corporate spokesman Mike Mitchell said Wednesday he hadn't been able to contact the company's Gulfport office to find out when the containers will be moved.

"Our intent is to be as cooperative as possible and to rebuild as quickly as possible," Mitchell said.

Crowley spokesman Mark Miller said the problem had been access to the area, which is cordoned off with concertina wire and controlled by law enforcement or National Guard personnel.

Crowley sent as many containers as possible away from the port before the storm, Miller said. The rest were stacked tightly together in a formation recommended for hurricane conditions, he said.

"We are dealing with a very extreme act of God," Miller said. "I don't think anybody could have foreseen this type of devastation. Preparations were taken."

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr said the companies can hire debris removal contractors and can easily get permission to go into the neighborhoods and remove their equipment.

"They need to take their property off other people's property. If there was damage, they need to see what they can do to make things right, and I think they will," Warr said.

Vrazel said he just wants the matter resolved, and quickly, so he can get his business running again.

"If we can find out who is responsible, we will be happy to send the bill," Vrazel said. "But the debris has got to go."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-CONTAINERS

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