October 16, 2005
In New Orleans, the Trashman Will Have to Move Mountains
NEW ORLEANS - On one front lawn, a two-foot-high pile of garbage takes the place of a hedge. A rusting mattress lies next to a bottle of cleaning fluid and a television set. The stench of paint combined with weeks-old food is choking. Flies hover over the whole thing, zeroing in on a handful of chocolate eggs.
This is just one pile. There are thousands upon thousands of others, totaling 22 million tons of waste. They have baked in the swampy heat for weeks now, making this city look and smell like a landfill.
It is more trash than any American city produces in a year. It is enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over. It will take at least 3.5 million truckloads to haul it away. "It is absolutely and completely revolting," Kathleen McGoey said on a recent day as she stood in front of a mound of Sheetrock, wicker chairs and moldy clothes outside an apartment building she owns.
This is not even counting the cars that have been abandoned on sidewalks, or the boats stranded on the streets. It is not counting the more than 1 million refrigerators, stoves and washing machines on curbs all over the area. This is not counting any of the hundreds of homes that will inevitably be demolished.
It is the largest, and most complicated, cleanup in American history.
More than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers have just begun trying to figure out how to sort the blanket of debris. There are probably thousands of tons of household chemicals like bleach and pesticides. There are toxic substances like Freon and mercury.
"What we have looking at us in the face isn't like anything we've seen before," said Jim Pogue, a spokesman for the corps. "We've got to get this out of here as soon as possible." But officials acknowledge that could mean months, if not years.
The corps has already awarded $2 billion in contracts to get rid of the waste in the region - more than three times the annual operating budget of the city of New Orleans. State officials predict that the cost could grow substantially.
There are nearly 3,000 dump trucks that have started to make daily rounds in neighborhoods where residents have moved back in. The corps is still looking for more trucks to arrive every day.
It will take months to get rid of the muck already clogging streets, and only a fraction of former city residents have returned home so far and have yet to empty out their homes. The Army Corps of Engineers says it is likely to take seven months, while Chuck Carr Brown, the assistant secretary of the Louisiana Environmental Services Office, said the process could take as long as two years.
In some neighborhoods, the rancid piles permeate the air with a smell that seems a mix of sour milk, foul river water and rotting meat. Residents who have returned are complaining about the odor and the accompanying maggots. They wear rubber gloves and face masks to guard their senses and protect their health.
As Ms. McGoey spent one recent day cleaning out an apartment in the building she owns, the tenant who lived there spent the afternoon hunched over the balcony, vomiting at least half a dozen times because of the stench. The night before the storm, Ms. McGoey bought several pounds of peppers, now transformed into a pulpy mess at the top of one trash can. "Even if my house is fine, there's no way you could stand to be around this," she said.
There are still five other apartments in the building that must be emptied, but Ms. McGoey says she cannot do that until the garbage she has now is taken away.
"What in the world happens when my neighbors come back?," she asked, looking down the road at other heaps like hers. "I don't have any idea when somebody is going to move this."
Regular trash collection still has not resumed in several parts of the city. In the French Quarter, the odor assaults diners even as they walk out of recently reopened upscale restaurants.
Moving the debris from the streets is just one step. Although officials are urging residents to separate and label their trash, few people returning here have the time or desire to pile their aluminum cans away from their microwaves. Instead, most simply just drag the trash to the curb and leave it to the contractors to sort out.
Contractors must then sort the debris at a collection site before the mounds of rubbish will be taken to burn sites, recycling areas or landfills.
The corps is only beginning to make plans for the six categories of waste: green, household, construction, chemical, appliances and vehicles. They have no accurate estimate of how much of the debris fits into each category.
"We'll get rid of the most dangerous stuff first," said Darin Mann, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. "The most difficult part is going to be when people start to realize you have entire homes that are going to be classified as debris."
State officials anticipate having to remove some 4,000 pounds of mercury from demolished buildings and cars.
"This is not an easy process of just going in and knocking things down or getting it in one sweep," Mr. Mann said. "We'll have to go in and remove everything from each house - chemicals, furniture, whatever is there."
Much of the natural debris, such as tree trunks, branches and leaves knocked around by the storm, will be turned into wood chips and compost, but some will be burned to prevent termites from spreading. The metal scraps and tires from salvaged cars are expected to be recycled. Most of the remaining debris - including couches, insulation and roof shingles - will be placed in landfills in the area.
"There is a desire to recycle as much as possible, but there is also a strong drive to do this as soon as possible," Mr. Pogue said.
While preliminary tests have shown less soil contamination than many feared, the soppy, sticky mess has festered for weeks, and local officials worry that residents will be exposed to bacteria, chemical fumes or other toxic substances.
The plans to move forward quickly have drawn some concern from environmental advocates, who say that the pressure to simply get the stuff out could set a dangerous precedent with dumping in local processing sites and landfills.
"We're looking at a place that doesn't have the luxury of segregation that a normal, functioning infrastructure would have," said Allen Hershkowitz, the director of the solid waste research program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There may be no alternative now, because there is such an urgent need to make sure that you get this waste away from people, but you've got all this stuff that is never mixed together normally."
If the debris remains mixed together in the long term, Dr. Hershkowitz said, there will be public health risks from combustible material, rodent infestation or chemical leaks into the ground. Because so much of the debris was soaked in floodwater for days, there is an even greater concern for the spread of bacteria and mold, he said.
Even in places that suffered little damage from the storm, homeowners have returned to five-week-old food in refrigerators that stopped working the day of the storm. Now, those refrigerators sit curbside, wrapped tightly with tape. In Jefferson Parish, local officials have set up what some call a refrigerator graveyard, where residents can drop off their discarded appliances.
The freezers contain what were once pounds of fresh meat, crab and shrimp - all of it now liquefied and putrid. Many have messages that warn "gross" or "don't touch - stinky food."
But somebody must touch them. The corps has hired contractors to remove the Freon from the appliances so that they can be recycled. Those same contractors are also expected to clean out whatever is inside.
"Right now, our job is just to get this stuff off the streets," said Marnie Winter, the director of the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs. "People have so much to worry about, the last thing they want to do is empty their refrigerators."
If the magnitude of it all is too difficult to understand, consider Carneal Knapper's dump deposit slips from one day of hauling debris. There were 10 tons at 9 a.m., and a 9-ton delivery two hours later. By the early afternoon, there were 23 tons and, during his final drop-off at 5 p.m., another 10 tons.
At the end of the day, Mr. Knapper, 50, returned to his own destroyed home in the Lake Terrace neighborhood. He retrieved a wallet and a small box of coins, about the only things he thought were salvageable.
"They're going to have to tear down all this and put it in a dump truck," he said, pointing to his brick home, where floodwater had destroyed everything inside but a wooden dining room table.
He thought about the rolls of sodden carpet he had put in his truck earlier and said: "I'm driving the stuff like this every day, all day. All day, every day."