New Orleans has an odor problem. The New York Times provides a graphic discussion of the quality of life challenges this city faces in the short run. Perceptions of quality of life will play a key role in determining whether the skilled return to New Orleans.
In New Orleans, the Trashman Will Have to Move Mountains By JENNIFER MEDINA
NEW ORLEANS - On one front lawn, a two-foot-high pile of debris stands where a hedge would normally be. 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 foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.
This is just one pile. There are thousands upon thousands of others, totaling 22 million tons of waste, according to state officials. 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.
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 from bacteria and mold.
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 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 the paint thinner from broken telephone poles.
Contractors must then sort the debris at a collection site before the mounds of rubbish will be taken to burn sites, recycling areas or existing landfills within the New Orleans metropolitan area.
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.
There is no immediate threat of disease, and preliminary tests have shown less soil contamination than many feared. But 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.
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."