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Hurricane Debris Piles Up in Louisiana

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Hurricane Debris Piles Up in Louisiana

Katrina & Beyond

Hurricane Debris Piles Up in Louisiana

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Earlier this week we told you about hundreds of truckers hoping to make big money hauling hurricane debris to landfills. Today we visit some of those landfills, which provide yet another measure of the magnitude of the hurricane disaster. NPR's Howard Berkes has the story.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Here's Hurricane Katrina by the numbers: a thousand lives lost, a million people displaced, thousands of homes damaged or destroyed and, in Louisiana alone, 55 million cubic yards of debris, enough to fill the Superdome 11 times.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. MIKE BOURGEOIS (US Army Corps of Engineers): I've been on several missions like this, similar to this, and this is the worst I've ever seen. I mean, you're talking about the worst storm in the history of the United States. And there's a lot of debris out there, and we're picking up a lot of debris on a daily basis.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BERKES: Mike Bourgeois works with the US Army Corps of Engineers, supervising the collection, hauling and dumping of hurricane debris in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. One of the dump sites is Lafreniere Park, where mountains of tree limbs, stumps and logs rise now.

Mr. BOURGEOIS: Into this site on a daily basis, we got about 450 trucks, roughly 13, 14,000 yards that come in.

BERKES: Bulldozers, chippers and giant mechanical shovels work frenetically, turning what used to be neighborhood greenery into brown mounds of mulch.

Mr. BOURGEOIS: It'll go on from 7:00 in the morning till 7:00 at night.

BERKES: That's seven days a week for Jefferson Parish alone, and that's just one of five parish dumps. The others take in more sobering remnants of disrupted lives.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BERKES: Outside Waggaman, Louisiana, a long red dump truck backs up to the edge of a vast hole 140 acres big and about five stories deep. The truck disgorges what Mike Bourgeois calls construction and demolition debris.

Mr. BOURGEOIS: That's the--everything that comes out of the house: Sheetrock, furniture, chairs, carpeting, anything and everything that comes out of the house.

BERKES: Including a stuffed and dusty Mickey Mouse pillow, a sealed one-pound bag of Starbucks House Blend coffee and a battered mailbox with an address. We're joined by Mike Mandell, the manager of this privately owned landfill.

Mr. MIKE MANDELL (Landfill Manager): Unfortunately, a lot of people's lives is what's getting buried in this site right now.

BERKES: What's the most striking thing or most memorable thing that you've seen come in here?

Mr. MANDELL: Photo albums. You know, I won't go through them, but I've seen photo albums laying on the ground, and, you know, that's people's memories and what they go back to.

BERKES: And the dump trucks keep coming, 120 an hour, 1,500 a day. Mike Bourgeois of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mr. BOURGEOIS: You look at it and you look at the people's lives that are in this debris. You just look at them, and it's sad, real sad.

BERKES: It's not everything left behind. There's an attempt to isolate the potentially toxic stuff, including refrigerators and freezers. They get their own dumps.

Unidentified Man: I've never smelled anything worse in my life. If anybody has ever smelled the worst smell in their life, probably 10 times worse.

BERKES: The smell rises from a sea of refrigerators in another Jefferson Parish landfill. There are 5,500 here now; a quarter million are expected, and they're not empty. Workers in splash suits and respirators drain the refrigerant first before pouring bleach on rotting food. It, too, has its own landfill. The stench is pungent and persistent, working its way into nostrils and down throats. Melissa Dickerson of the Environmental Protection Agency supervises the work.

Ms. MELISSA DICKERSON (Environmental Protection Agency): I've got guys that get over there, and they get sick and keep right on working. Nothing fazes them.

BERKES: Mike Bourgeois of the Corps of Engineers says it smells like that in some neighborhoods, given the thousands of refrigerators still sitting at the curbs. There's all kinds of other debris with them. That explains the 75 landfills and dump sites in Louisiana alone, besieged by trucks with remnants of hurricane damage. It could be a year before they're done. Howard Berkes, NPR News, New Orleans.

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