Trash Talk

Efforts to remove hurricane debris are stymied by everything from the scope of the project to oversized equipment to subcontracting practices.



John Fogarty, a New Orleans area native who works as a disaster-debris cleanup expert for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, retains the muscular physique of one who wrestled as a senior at Bonnabel High School in Metairie. But these days Fogarty is wrestling with the biggest job of his life: cleaning up half of the city after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Fogarty is one of two men in New Orleans charged with leading the historic cleanup of millions of tons of stinking refrigerators, wet carpets and other hurricane refuse after Katrina clobbered the city Aug. 29. More than half of the 200,000 homes in Orleans Parish were flooded or damaged.

"This mission is of a magnitude we've never seen," says Fogarty, who operates out of the Corps' makeshift war room in the Uptown Square shopping center. "We are estimating the removal of 15 million cubic yards of debris from the entire city." (A cubic yard is roughly the size of a kitchen dishwasher, the Corps says.) That's just the trash that residents haul out of their houses for curbside pickup -- a job that Fogarty says will take until September to finish.

In addition, the Corps must haul away ruined roofs and other wreckage -- once thousands of homes are approved for demolition. The Corps estimates that removal of another 7.5 million cubic yards of "C&D" (construction and demolition debris) will raise New Orleans' hurricane trash haul to 22.5 million cubic yards.

That's more than four times the debris Hurricane Andrew left on the entire Gulf Coast in 1992, Fogarty says.

The task of cleaning up the statewide mess from Katrina and Rita is expected to take several years and cost $1.5 billion, says Robert Anderson, a Corps spokesman in Baton Rouge. An estimated 35,000 homes in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes are slated for demolition, says Anderson. Of that number, the City of New Orleans' request for the Corps to demolish 5,000 flood-damaged homes has dropped to 150 in the wake of public protest.

The massive New Orleans cleanup alone should take the Corps, its two major private contractors and hundreds of subcontractors well into the year 2007. In addition, Fogarty, a civil engineer specializing in levee construction since graduating from Tulane University, also is in charge of household garbage collection for half of the city.

And what about Mardi Gras?

"That's an interesting question," Fogarty says. "It's a big concern I have, but it's an issue for FEMA to decide."

FEMA is the deep pocket for the city's disaster cleanup. Because trash from parades and street parties does not fall under the mandate of the presidential disaster decree for Louisiana, FEMA and the Corps are understandably nervous at the prospect of who will clean up tons of debris after the city's annual Carnival parades.

The cash-strapped city is seeking a $1.5-million corporate Mardi Gras sponsor to defray sanitation expenses that will be incurred during a slew of parades. Carnival krewe captains, elected officials and others have expressed confidence that a corporate benefactor can be found. The search for a patron is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Carnival officially kicked off last Friday (Jan. 6) with Mayor Ray Nagin's ceremonial cutting of a king cake at Gallier Hall. An abbreviated Carnival will run only eight days, but it still will generate tons of non-storm debris.

At the same time, Corps officials say the post-Katrina cleanup has been slowed by several factors, including the spotty repopulation of the city, the difficulty of maneuvering modern cleanup equipment through narrow streets, and fierce resistance to the proposed demolition of storm-wrecked homes as well as some entire neighborhoods.

The staggered return of residents since the hurricane evacuations makes it difficult to estimate the time, personnel and equipment needed to pick up debris placed at curbs, Fogarty says. By Thanksgiving, less than a fifth of New Orleans' 460,000 residents had returned. Nagin predicts the city's population will swell to 200,000 this month with the reopening of some schools and the return of thousands of students to the city's eight colleges and universities.

Normally, five passes through a residential neighborhood would finish the Corps' disaster cleanup mission. Not here. "There are streets we've been down 10 to 15 times," Fogarty says. "In a way it's helped us because all the debris from some 200,000 homes is not all out there at once. If every homeowner was back ... it would be tough."

Nagin's administration had assigned the hurricane cleanup mission to OMNI Pinnacle, a private contractor, before Katrina. After evacuations nearly emptied the city of its 460,000 residents (and its tax base), the mayor surrendered command and control of the operation to the Corps of Engineers on Sept. 21.

Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Rita stormed into the city, re-flooded the Lower Ninth Ward, blew away blue-roof tarps and pushed over trees left leaning by Katrina. The city then suspended its residential garbage collection contract with Waste Management (another private contractor), and the Corps assumed those responsibilities as well.

In addition to picking up household trash in repopulated areas such as Uptown, the French Quarter and Algiers, Fogarty also oversees collection of personal refuse from sites that house disaster-recovery workers, work camps, FEMA and Red Cross Centers. "They all generate garbage every day. We have crews making sure that we get those sites as well as the curbside collections."

The going is slow for storm debris and garbage collection alike.

Monster cleanup machines with such names as the "one-armed bandit," the Annihilator and the Terminator make quick work in rural disaster areas. But the machines are too big for the French Quarter, Bywater and Uptown -- or any narrow streets with low-hanging oak limbs.

"[The city] doesn't lend itself to a lot of automated pickup," Fogarty says. "It's still the old-fashioned garbage truck with laborers on the back -- the rear hoppers."

Meanwhile, the Corps is concerned about the tortured progress of city efforts to produce a list of homes slated for demolition and removal. The Nagin administration last month finally announced a targeted list of 2,500 homes, most in the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. However, civil rights lawyer Bill Quigley filed suit to block the demolitions, challenging the constitutionality of the plan to raze private property without the permission of homeowners, many of whom are displaced. The city counters that it has the right to demolish blighted property that threatens the health and safety of others. The suit has been allotted to Civil Court Judge Herbert Cade.

The delay leaves the Corps' debris crews -- like many homeowners these days -- waiting in limbo.

Fogarty believes the state has enough landfill capacity to accommodate hurricane debris, but he worries that the local haul will use up much of the city's landfill space for years to come. He has not ruled out shipping some trash out of state.

The seven landfills in the metro area can only handle so many trucks of debris daily, he says, citing another factor that is slowing the effort.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and elected officials are raising concerns about long-term health risks. Darryl Malek-Wiley, a spokesman for the local Sierra Club chapter, criticizes post-Katrina use of the Gentilly landfill.

"It was never properly closed to begin with, and now they are putting additional waste on top of it," Malek-Wiley says.

Fogarty says the landfill operator is building a berm to prevent pollution runoff. However, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network is unconvinced. The statewide coalition of environmental groups has filed suit to close the Gentilly landfill, says Marylee Orr, director of the Baton Rouge-based LEAN.

In addition to environmentalists, local trash haulers have concerns about the current setup -- but their concerns are economic. Some say they are being cut out of the lucrative debris removal process.

Lorraine Irving, a 53-year-old grandmother who lost her job as a Regional Transit Authority bus driver because of Katrina, has been unable to find work in her hometown as a city-permitted hauler of recyclable storm debris. A former cross-country truck driver, Irving says the lucrative job of hauling away recyclable "white goods" has been awarded to subcontractors who are mostly from outside New Orleans.

The haulers have divided the city into zones, Irving says. Paid by the load, they jealously guard the debris that lines the curbs of the city's flood-ravaged residential neighborhoods. Some threaten to call police or have permits yanked from other haulers who try to take white goods out of their designated zones, Irving said.

"Who sold New Orleans into sections to be zoned?" she asked Nagin at a recent town hall meeting. "Who cut my city up like this?"

Nagin responded that the city has little say over who profits from the massive cleanup effort or how the cleanup is organized.

The Corps of Engineers oversees several private contractors who, the mayor said, have "divided the city up into zones." Federal and state environmental inspectors monitor the disposal process. Nagin appeared apologetic for the city's lack of influence in getting homeless and jobless storm victims a share of the cleanup contracts.

"The City of New Orleans has no revenue streams coming in, so we are reduced to begging for loans from the feds" and private bank, the mayor explained.

Corps spokesman Anderson says elected officials tend to want more disaster recovery jobs for local residents because so many locals are thrown out of work after a storm. Twenty percent of federal debris removal contracts are designated for Louisiana businesses, including 8 percent for women and minority-owned firms, he says. After initially hiring companies they had worked with in other disaster areas, the three main contractors for Louisiana are now "transitioning" to local subcontractors, he adds. "They are looking for people they can trust to meet their daily [production] goals," Anderson says.

Irving works in suburban Jefferson Parish as a subcontractor for a larger Mississippi-based subcontractor. She says she earns $600 a day hauling "white goods" from the New Orleans suburbs to a recycler on the West Bank. She has a crew of four -- including a friend, her son and a nephew -- and two trucks. But one truck sits parked because there's not enough work.

"Jefferson Parish is winding down," Irving says. Most of Jefferson's population has returned from the massive evacuations that followed the storm, and thus most of the damaged appliances have already been hauled away. "We are just catching stuff from the stragglers," Irving says.

She says she signed up for work with 10 different companies and watched several safety videos. But, she complains, all said her Ford F-150 pickup truck and 12-by-6-foot trailer were too small for debris removal -- even though she had experience hauling storm debris after two of the four recent hurricanes in Florida.

Katrina flooded Irving's home in eastern New Orleans with 5 feet of water. She estimates it will cost up to $90,000 to rebuild. She worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, while other haulers took the holiday off. "That's the only way I can get ahead," she says.

Irving says she is not seeking charity or special treatment. "I'm willing to work, but I can't get a job to help rebuild my city, to rebuild my home. People are boo-hooing on Oprah. She's giving away thousands of dollars and buying people houses. I'm not crying -- just give me a chance to do my own work." Farewell, Alex Rawls

They say you can't go home again, but when it comes to life after Hurricane Katrina, anything seems possible. And so it's with great regret, but with a tinge of optimism, we bid farewell to Alex Rawls, who makes a triumphant return to OffBeat as its new editor.

Rawls had been Gambit Weekly's music editor since January 2004, coming to the paper off a six-year stint as a music columnist for, you guessed it, OffBeat, where he penned his "St. Roch" column focusing on the city's rock 'n' roll scene. At Gambit Weekly, Rawls wrote on a variety of subjects including books and even about the popular, butter-splattering dining experience that is dinner at Charlie's Steakhouse.

Rawls replaces Bunny Matthews, whose "Vic and Nat'ly" comic currently appears in Gambit Weekly. We wish Alex all the best, and to keep on rockin' in the free world.

Lorraine Irving, a 53-year-old grandmother who lost her job - as a Regional Transit Authority bus driver because of - Katrina, has been unable to find work in her hometown as a - city-permitted hauler of recyclable storm debris. - DAVID LEE SIMMONS
  • David Lee Simmons
  • Lorraine Irving, a 53-year-old grandmother who lost her job as a Regional Transit Authority bus driver because of Katrina, has been unable to find work in her hometown as a city-permitted hauler of recyclable storm debris.


Add a comment