Volunteers Clear Debris

By Lisa Doyle | September 28, 2010

In the shadow of the casinos beached by Katrina along the coast of Biloxi, lies the fishing and gaming community of east Biloxi. Houses in the area were largely destroyed by the storm; property was left with an overwhelming tangle of debris that needed to be cleared for residents and local businesses to begin anew. Property owners were required to get all the debris from their properties to the streets for FEMA and city contractors to remove it, leaving residents with the task of extracting shipping boats, sheds, trees, and even their neighbors' homes from their property without tools capable of moving larger materials to the street.

Contractor Phil Linsday from Ashland, Ore., and Engineer Richard Scott from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., took time out of their busy schedule to help the community with their expertise. Linsday and Scott participate in Burning Man, a large arts festival in Nevada. Each year Burning Man builds Black Rock City in the desert. According to Scott, nearly a thousand Burning Man employees build an infrastructure complete with streets, signs, hospitals, utilities, outhouses, and other temporary plumbing scenarios. The city supports up to 40,000 people and is the fourth-largest city in Nevada for one week of the year. At the end of the festival, the city is taken down and removed from the desert without any signs that it was ever there. "We probably rent $60,000 in equipment every season, just for this project," says Scott, who lists generators and forklifts as some of the primary equipment used each year.

When Katrina hit in 2005, the Burning Man festival was in full swing. A few of the participants and employees of Burning Man who had planned to take vacations after the festival decided instead to visit the Gulf Coast and lend a hand with the recovery efforts. A relative of a member of the Burning Man crew directed the group to the Van Duc Buddhist temple in east Biloxi.

The Buddhist temple had been dedicated just three days before the storm. Fifty-three guests from out-of-town, visiting the dedication, were stranded in the temple during the hurricane. They survived the 30-foot tides of Katrina in a very narrow attic space. The building interior was destroyed, and had to be gutted to return the temple to working order.

"Our goal was to repair the Buddhist temple. Trucks were stopping with donations to give out. It seemed like we were the only lot that had a head start on everybody cleaning up," says Scott. The group used a large dome-shaped tent to stockpile goods trucked in for distribution to the community.

Linsday and Scott's group attracted the attention of Doosan Infracore, who donated the use of a Doosan Daewoo S140LCV excavator and Doosan Daewoo M160 tool carrier. "We were looking for a group that is helping for all of the right reasons and has experience in operating heavy equipment," said Jeff Wolfe, marketing manager for the Doosan Infracore America Corporation Heavy Construction Equipment Division.

Geith also loaned a 36-inch bucket and thumb for the S140LCV. The bucket and thumb was installed by Keen Transport, who delivered the machines to the area for a discounted fee that covered the cost of fuel. Coastal Machinery has also been checking in on the community, providing parts and service support when needed.

Since receiving the heavy equipment, the group has continued to concentrate its efforts in the community of east Biloxi — they have no way of transporting the machines, so they must walk the equipment from site to site. The 30-block neighborhood gives the machine plenty of work. "We've been utilizing the equipment to remove large debris from private and commercial properties," says Scott. "We've cleaned off five churches, three commercial facilities and dozens of homes for large debris items that can't be removed by hand."

The group has removed concrete slabs from an ice plant and refueling station, which is vital to members of the shrimping community who live and work on their boats. Trees, houses that have floated onto neighboring property and other debris have been removed by the group to allow enough room for residents to receive FEMA trailers. Clearing the property for this group is not as simple as pushing the debris to the streets where contractors then remove it. Attempts are made to recover personal affects and recycle as many building materials as possible. "We're a volunteer group, which works well because we're not paid," says Scott, "we can take the extra TLC to check the property and try to recover as many personal assets as possible."

The group recovers building materials such as cinderblocks that are cleaned and stacked on pallets. The salvaged building materials are given to community members in need. Large timbers, fences, sheds, anything that can be reutilized is put aside until the group can find it a new home.

The equipment has also been used to help homeowners whose houses aren't safe for the owners to enter. Many of the houses collapse, making it impossible to recover items inside. "We secure them, and take the roofs off, knock down a wall; we remove debris so that they can go in and recover personal items."

Scott says he's seen some light equipment such as small skid steers used by other relief organizations, but the heavy equipment in the community is mostly being utilized in commerce. "The community is really pleased that we're here. There are no other free heavy equipment services in the area."