Getting Rid of Katrina Rubble

It's been estimated that there are 22 million tons of debris heaped on New Orleans. Officials are trying to implement a coordinated effort to clear the city. That coordination hasn't always been that evident in the early stages of the clean up.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR NEWS. I'm Renee Montagne.

There are 22 million tons of debris now heaped on New Orleans according to one Louisiana newspaper. The task of cleaning that up is huge, beginning with demolished cars and big broken trees. In the face of this staggering challenge, officials are trying to implement a coordinated effort. NPR's Tom Goldman reports that coordination hasn't always been evident in the early stages of the cleanup.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

And so it began last week.

(Soundbite of chain saw)

GOLDMAN: Cutting up trees that fell like pick-up sticks on St. Charles Street uptown...

(Soundbite of shoveling on asphalt)

GOLDMAN: ...shoveling up broken glass, roof tiles, slats of wood that littered Canal Street downtown where the big hotels rise next to the Mississippi River. Most of the workers on Canal were from out of town, but among them was one proud resident of New Orleans named Lionel Green(ph).

Mr. LIONEL GREEN (Resident, New Orleans): We're from here and we love our city very much.

(Soundbite of shoveling on asphalt)

Mr. GREEN: You look at Canal Street and you never knew it had a hurricane. That's right. What we did, you'd never know it was dirty. Look at it. That's the way it's supposed to be.

GOLDMAN: Canal Street is where most of the people are in this otherwise deserted city.

(Soundbite of shoveling on asphalt)

GOLDMAN: Police and soldiers have been using Canal as a staging area. It's a temporary home for the world's media members who park their RVs in a line down the middle of the road; a neat and tidy Canal Street is the first thing sleepy-eyed journalists see in the morning as they step out of their mobile homes. It's an irony not lost on Michael Brown(ph), a trash hauler from Illinois.

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Trash Hauler, Illinois): It's kind of backwards. We're picking it up all the way down there by the media to make it look nice so everybody can see the progress that they're making in cleaning up the wonderful city of New Orleans.

GOLDMAN: Cleanup could be happening faster and in more places with better logistical planning. That's what Aaron Johnson(ph) says. He's a production manager for Belfour Emergency Response Team(ph).

Mr. AARON JOHNSON (Belfour Emergency Response Team): And I could put 4,000 people to work right now, but I don't have anywhere for them to sleep at night. And I'm not going to come out here and ask guys to work 18 hours a day and sleep six or eight to a room. I mean, you can't do that.

GOLDMAN: And then there are the residents of New Orleans, many of whom are complaining that they can't get back into the city to clean up their streets, homes, businesses, because police and health officials say it's not yet safe.

Despite the criticism, a drive through several parts of town yesterday revealed a city that, while not yet wonderful, appears to be getting closer.

Mr. VERNON GRIFFIN (Resident, New Orleans): I think they're doing a good job of cleaning it up. This is an historic city and they can't afford to lose it.

GOLDMAN: We ran into Vernon Griffin walking down a street in the mid-city district outside of downtown New Orleans. Griffin was one of those who stayed during and after the hurricane. He has more invested than most in seeing the trash and debris gone. Where we stood and talked to him, floodwater had been waist deep. But after it receded, Griffin says crews came in quickly to clean up the muck.

Mr. GRIFFIN: They have back loaders and things that you can see where they've been scraping the ground, and they've just been pushing the stuff away.

GOLDMAN: Obviously, there are areas that still haven't been cleaned up. I'm standing on the corner of Earhart and Broadway Boulevards and, as I'm speaking, a couple of Army trucks and a grader are going by.

(Soundbite of heavy machinery)

GOLDMAN: They're on a search-and-rescue mission, and as they go by, I'm having to back up because of the wake from the waters that they're producing.

Ms. BRENDA HATFIELD (Chief Administrative Officer, New Orleans): You know, that the city was already 80 percent underwater. The city is being drained.

GOLDMAN: It's only when that floodwater recedes, says New Orleans chief administrative officer, Brenda Hatfield, that the sanitation department and Army Corps of Engineers can move in and clean up debris. It's a tremendous job, she says, costing millions of dollars. But right now the priority is pumping the water out and restoring power. Hatfield doesn't know where all the debris will go, but she says the city is conscious of the environmental impact. There's concern about contamination with an estimated 145,000 cars needing to be scrapped and garages filled with pesticides and paint thinner. A Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality official says wood waste probably will be burned, other debris ground up and buried or hauled away in trucks, barges and trains. It's a process many New Orleans residents don't care about. They simply want to see the trash gone and the streets clear. Vernon Griffin hopes at least by February.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Mardi Gras. If we have a parade with 10 people on the street, that would make our day.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News, New Orleans.

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