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Evidence of Lives Cut Adrift

Huge swaths of hurricane debris are moving through the ocean. Items big and small stir emotions on distant shores.

October 22, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW IBERIA, La. — 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.

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."

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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