ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Enormous trucks from all over the country are rolling down highways toward Baton Rouge. When they get to town, their task is to clear neighborhoods where streets are lined with trash from the flooding that hit the area nearly two weeks ago. Our co-host Ari Shapiro went out with one of the cleanup crews this morning.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is a waste disposal site on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, and there is this line of trucks twice as big as any ordinary dump truck with an equally big trailer behind them that is going to go down these residential streets and pick up the sofas, the rugs, the mattresses that are just lined for miles and miles and miles, the water-soaked remnants of people's lives that were washed away by the flood.
KURT THORMAHLEN: This is much worse than I think's being reported, honestly. It's pretty bad. And I think that as the water goes down in some other parishes, we'll see the destruction is higher than they anticipated for sure.
SHAPIRO: Kurt Thormahlen is with DRC Emergency Services, the company that's organizing this effort. Baton Rouge has contracted with the company to handle disaster response. So they started out rescuing people in boats. Now the boats are docked, and trucks are rolling in to handle the cleanup.
THORMAHLEN: They brought some from Houston, some from Alabama, some from Missouri, Arkansas.
SHAPIRO: Thormahlen says this is different from other disasters because nobody saw the storm coming. He was actually in Hawaii when he heard what was happening and hopped a flight back.
THORMAHLEN: We started here on Saturday of this week. I anticipate probably 90 - 60 to 90 days here in East Baton Rouge.
SHAPIRO: Of just debris removal.
THORMAHLEN: Just debris removal.
SHAPIRO: We walk over to the command center - an air-conditioned trailer where the team figures out the battle plan.
KAREN KHONSARI: This is a map of East Baton Rouge Parish, and it is divided up by ZIP code.
SHAPIRO: Karen Khonsari, the city's director of environmental services, is pointing at a big, laminated map laid out on a table.
KHONSARI: Our preliminary estimate was 321,000 cubic yards.
SHAPIRO: Wait. So you start out by saying actually how much stuff is there to remove before you even dive in.
KHONSARI: ...Because it's such a huge number.
SHAPIRO: To give you a sense of how much trash that is, if you dumped 320,000 cubic yards of stuff onto a football field, Khonsari says it would create a pile 130 feet high.
Should we go out and see what you guys are all doing?
We pull out of the staging area and drive to the neighborhood of Park Forest. Each creek that we pass is gouged out like a canyon. Tree roots hang off into the air. The creeks look tame now, but you can tell that just last week, they were monsters.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRASH REMOVAL MACHINERY)
SHAPIRO: That is a claw like a giant version of an arcade game hanging off a truck. Instead of picking up little door prizes, the arm grabs refrigerators, mattresses, a recliner chair where someone used to sit and watch TV and the television set along with it. Some of the trash is still dripping wet.
GLEN NELSON: We're going to work as hard as we can daylight to dark to get it done.
SHAPIRO: Glenn Nelson owns 10 of these trucks, and he lives not far from Baton Rouge.
NELSON: We have a lot of people that come out. They're upset. There's a lot of their personal belongings. So we try to be as courteous as we can with everybody and sympathetic to their needs.
SHAPIRO: One pile of debris has a slinky and a girl's bracelets. Another has an Xbox and a tricycle. And the thick air has a rotting, organic smell like dank, standing water. Even as the piles shrink, people keep adding more to them. Will Montgomery and his wife are helping their adult daughter gut her ruined home.
At this moment, there is this huge truck in front of your house just picking up all of the stuff that you've put by the curb. How does it feel to see this happening?
WILL MONTGOMERY: Oh, Man, that's heartbreaking, you know? But life has got to go on, you know? So we just do one day at a time.
SHAPIRO: He leads us inside the house to see what they've done so far.
MONTGOMERY: This is the kitchen area.
SHAPIRO: And you've ripped out everything all the way up to the cabinets.
MONTGOMERY: All the way up to the cabinets, and now I'm getting ready to get the microwave and all of this out.
SHAPIRO: The carpeting and hardwood floors are gone. The drywall is out. So is the insulation. They're treating the wooden studs with an anti-mold spray. Their faces are covered in sweat.
MONTGOMERY: I'm real tired, Man (laughter).
SHAPIRO: I bet you never thought you'd be working this hard in your retirement.
MONTGOMERY: I've never worked this hard in my entire life.
SHAPIRO: He says they're going to keep at this as long as it takes until they can get back to normal. But it's going to be a different kind of normal than before.
SIEGEL: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from Baton Rouge, La.
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