As the search continued here for people killed or stranded by Hurricane Ike, authorities said Monday that they were faced with much larger challenges than simply clearing roadways and restoring electricity before they could let residents back onto this debris-strewn island.
The sludge left in homes and on roads as floodwaters recede represents a “toxic soup” of mud, human waste, asbestos, lead and gasoline that poses serious health risks and must be removed before people return, they said.
Homes must be inspected for structural damage and for leaks before natural gas service can be restored.
And before debris can be hauled away, hazardous material has to be separated from what can be sent to recycling centers, burned or chipped into mulch.
“The damage just looks like a lot of debris,” said Steve LeBlanc, the city manager. “Just clean it up. Flip a switch. And we can be back online. It’s a whole lot more complicated than that.”
Total damages to the island are estimated to be more than $10 billion, city officials said.
Officials said they did not expect electricity and natural gas to be restored on the entire island for at least a month and that it might take more than a year to remove all the debris. Water should be running within the next couple of weeks, they said.
Waiting on hold with his insurance company, one resident, John Strange, took a break from scraping sludge off his home’s vinyl floor. He said the bugs that were emerging from the sludge were just too overwhelming.
“They could fly away with your hat,” he said. “The roaches are bigger than I’ve ever seen in New York City. They’d whip a New York roach. The mosquitoes are as big as your thumbnail. You name them, you know, like ‘Hey, George.’”
City officials said the death toll on the island remained at five. They estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 people had stayed on the island, and they pleaded with them to leave.
“Quite frankly, we are reaching a health crisis for those that are remaining on the island,” LeBlanc said. “We’re asking and strongly encouraging those that are here to leave, and we’re certainly telling those that are away to stay away.”
He added, “We don’t want to go in a downward spiral.”
Officials said the bridge onto the island would remain closed to all but emergency workers for several more days, or at least until safety concerns could be addressed.
Along 54th Street, a city engineer carried a can of fluorescent spray paint as he marked condemned houses with an orange circle with an X in the middle. “I feel like the undertaker,” he said, standing before a house that was reduced to rubble.
Pools of standing water were creating breeding zones for mosquitoes, which were beginning to fill the air, and city officials asked the county to begin spraying to kill the larvae. One man was found on the street with more than 1,000 mosquito bites, said Alicia Cahill, a spokeswoman for the city. He was airlifted to the hospital.