The inner life of a city gets dragged to the curb

Mary Kelly-Swafford never knew mold could come in so many colors until she and her husband, Bert, began to gut their mid-city home.

"Black, white, red, yellow, blue, green, purple," she ticks off from inside the structure's skeletal remains, stripped bare of furniture, appliances, electronics, clothes, mementos, and even sheetrock - all of which is piled 10-feet high on the front curb.

"Imagine everything you own sitting in a Port-O-Let for three weeks," adds Mr. Swafford. "That's what it was like in here, nice and soggy and smelly."

That's also what it's like out there - on every curb and around every corner in New Orleans. The rotting piles of debris grow daily as more and more people return to the storm-ravaged city and begin to clean out their homes and businesses.

The task of collecting the trash, estimated at 22 million tons for New Orleans alone, is unprecedented and expected to take months, if not years. The amount is roughly one-tenth of the waste produced annually by US municipalities - but this rancid rubble needs to be picked up and deposited all at once.

That is making for a real challenge for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the project for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The corps has been working at it for more than a month now and says things are going relatively smoothly, all things considered.

Crews are picking up 70,000 cubic yards of debris per day, and more workers are showing up every day to take part in the massive cleanup. The hard part is separating the paint cans from the appliances, the tree limbs from the roof shingles, and the couches from the cleaning supplies - all of which got blended together in the swirling, swampy conditions.

"Not only is there an enormous amount of material in a small geographical area, there is an unprecedented mixture of materials - industrial, commercial, medical - that don't normally get mixed together," says Allen Hershkowitz, director of the solid waste research program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "The most immediate problem ... is making sure to remove them from public exposure."

That's the short-term goal. The long-term goal, he says, is to properly dispose of them. But environmentalists worry that speed is taking precedence over proper dumping procedures.

Don Cleary, a quality-assurance supervisor for the corps, is adamant that the disposal is being done correctly. "The most important thing is maintaining a clean waste stream," he says, watching a hazardous-materials crew pick up unmarked containers in the hard-hit Lakeview neighborhood.

He describes how wood debris is separated out and shredded into mulch, construction and demolition materials are hauled off to garbage dumps, household appliances are stripped of Freon and oils, crushed, and sent to steel mills, and hazardous materials are stored separately until proper disposal can be done.

Most of the debris is being hauled to the east side of the city, in the Gentilly area. Formerly a landfill that was capped, the site is again bustling with activity as thousands of trucks roll in and out all day long, dumping baby strollers, mattresses, basketball hoops, attic insulation, Tupperware, tennis shoes, and teddy bears.

"It's a huge pile of debris now, but it wasn't too long ago when this was someone's life," says Mr. Cleary, swatting at flies.

The fact that this was once a landfill that was covered over and is again being used to store millions of tons of new debris is a major environmental concern, says Erik Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has been to New Orleans to survey the situation.

"Significant disposal went on there for many years, and once you add additional weight on top of that, it acts like a leaking sponge," he says. "It's already leaching into the soil."

He's heard reports that some of the trash is being burned outside the city - though the corps denies that - and believes incineration will become the preferred method once the debris really starts mounting.

Everyone agrees the cleanup will be lengthy, and while city officials are encouraging residents to return, they are also warning them to take extra caution when entering their mold-filled homes.

By now, everyone knows their first order of business is to tape shut their refrigerator and haul it outside. Do not peek inside. In fact, curbside fridges have become the newest billboards, with a wide variety of political and humorous messages spray-painted across them. "Katrina victim" and "FEMA, where are you?" are just two.

Because most city residents aren't back yet, plenty of trash is yet to come. Collectors say they often will do a sweep of a street and come back the next day to find more piles.

And that is just the debris from the inside. Many homes will need to be demolished altogether, creating continued work for those who want it.

As it turns out, plenty of people do. The smell of money is wafting from those foul, fly-filled heaps, and hundreds of new workers come from around the country each day to participate in the cleanup.

Marcus Skaggs is one of them. He leans out the window of a dump truck he's waiting to register, and explains he's here for one reason.

"The money," says Mr. Skaggs, a carpenter from Florida. His truck carries 35 cubic yards of trash and averages about 10 loads per day. At $7 a yard, that's $2,450 a day for one truck.

He expects to be here for a couple of years, first picking up trash and then demolishing homes and carting them off.

"Just the smell driving in, it's putrid," he says. "But I'll be here as long as the money's good."

Skaggs is far back in a seemingly endless line of trucks their drivers hope to register for work, and most wait at least 24 hours to do so. After their trucks pass inspection, drivers must get immunized, go through safety training, and get assigned to a subcontractor and sector.

They work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, and are living in tents, travel trailers, and the cab of their trucks on the west side of City Park.

Most are veterans of other disaster-recovery missions, but Steven Broussard, who has been in the area since just after hurricane Katrina hit, says it still gets to him occasionally.

"Seeing kids' toys piled up, that's the hardest," says the sturdy Texan. "People's lives are on the curb."

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