By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of rats killed by Hurricane Isaac have washed up onto the beaches of Mississippi and created a foul-smelling mess that officials say will take days to clean up.
When the hurricane lifted the tides, the water washed across the marshy areas in Louisiana where the semi-aquatic rats live and forced them to ride the waves into Mississippi until they succumbed to exhaustion and drowned, said David Yarborough, a supervisor for Hancock County on the Gulf Coast.
The tides then deposited their bodies on the Mississippi shoreline, he said.
As of Tuesday, about 16,000 of the rodents have been collected in Hancock County, where a hired contractor's clean-up efforts are expected to continue for another week, officials said.
In nearby Harrison County, officials decided to carry out the work themselves. Using shovels and pitchforks, workers have removed 16 tons of the dead rats from beaches since Saturday and taken them to a local landfill.
"We have an event called 'Cruisin' The Coast' the second week of October with 30,000 to 40,000 people on the beach, and we didn't want to wait" to clean up, said Kim Savant, president of that county's Board of Supervisors.
Although they're smelly and disgusting, the dead rats pose no health risk to humans, said Brigid Elchos of the Mississippi Board of Animal Health.
Mississippi also dealt with dead rats after Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, but officials said the current situation seems especially bad.
The beaches are closed to the public, but Yarborough said people have come anyway to see the littered beaches. The visitors usually don't stay long, possibly because the odor is intense on the shore and discernible from up to three miles away, he said.
In addition to the rats, workers also found dead hogs, deer, coyotes, snakes and rabbits on the beaches.
(Editing by David Adams and Philip Barbara)