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Feds to keep picking up full costs of hurricane debris removal

The federal government will keep picking up the full costs of clearing hurricane wreckage in the Gulf Coast for the rest of 2006, the White House said Thursday.

A program that reimburses state and local authorities for 100 percent of debris removal bills was set to expire Friday, shifting 10 percent of the costs to local governments.

Lawmakers and local leaders in Mississippi and Louisiana, where tens of thousands of homes were destroyed in floods and high winds during Hurricane Katrina, have said the area is too cash-strapped to pay even that much.

“It’s a huge help for all of us on the ground because the debris pile is unprecedented,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

Vitter said the federal costs to continue the program were expected to reach in the tens of millions of dollars. So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent $3.6 billion to remove 98.6 million cubic yards of debris from the region, enough trash to pile two miles high across five football fields.

The government will pay for all debris removal in five Louisiana parishes, where about 17.8 million cubic yards of wreckage remains, through Dec. 31. The parishes are Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, Washington and Plaquemines.

The program was extended though next May 15 for projects in the Mississippi Sound, including rivers and tributaries in state’s southern region. Officials said Mississippi received a longer deadline because it was slower to be reimbursed by Washington. An estimated 2.1 million cubic yards of debris remain in Mississippi, according to the most recent FEMA data available.