“I am covered in maggots,” said Thomas, 64. “I’ve never seen maggots this big.”
As New Orleans continues to deal with the fallout nearly four weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall, the city is facing a garbage mess that has left many of its residents without trash pickup since the storm.
When the city lost power during Ida, people tossed the contents of their refrigerators into garbage bags that have been left to rot. The hazards of the untouched trash and the tens of thousands of tons of uncollected hurricane debris have been exacerbated by rain and soaring temperatures in recent days.
Trash sweeps after storms are routine in New Orleans and typically run smoothly. But this time the effort has been complicated by a shortage of sanitation workers and trucks. City officials say that they are working with 25 percent of the workforce they need.
On Friday, the mayor’s office announced residents could drop off their bagged trash free at the Elysian Fields station while officials work to increase the number of sanitation workers for garbage pickups across New Orleans. The city is now outsourcing for help.
“It would take about four or five blocks before our trucks would have to go drop off garbage at the landfill,” said Ramsey Green, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer of infrastructure. “Now, it’s one block and they have to bail.”
Green, who was in the streets helping with the cleanup effort last week, said he had just placed an open bag of cat food covered in maggots in a dump truck: “The most disgusting [stuff] I’ve ever seen.”
The garbage pickup crisis comes as New Orleans is still feeling the effects of Ida, its worst storm since Hurricane Katrina. The city estimated this month that it had 200,000 cubic yards, or 54,000 tons, of debris to clear from the hurricane. As of Friday afternoon, 19 days since the storm made landfall, New Orleans had removed 23,786 cubic yards — less than 12 percent of the debris, according to data tracked by the city. Data tracking has since been removed from the city’s website.
The stagnant garbage collection has left residents frustrated and questioning how public officials were not prepared. Some of the residents have jokingly needled the city‘s garbage troubles by throwing a “trash parade.” One man, Daniel Jenkins, was arrested over the weekend for allegedly threatening to shoot New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) if his trash wasn’t picked up.
Much of the criticism has been directed at Cantrell, who acknowledged on Twitter, “No getting around it: The situation stinks.” Cantrell noted that the city had issues with some solid-waste contractors before Ida, resulting in once-weekly pickups in some neighborhoods instead of the twice-weekly standard.
“There’s absolutely no magic wand that’s going to solve this overnight,” she said at a news conference, “and if there were one, I would have waved it already.”
On Tuesday, Cantrell’s administration did not attend a city council meeting held to address the mounting concerns over the mountains of trash. The mayor’s office indicated that it would be speaking with federal officials this week.
Metro Service Group, which won a seven-year contract at about $10 million a year in 2017 to manage the city’s trash, has taken the brunt of the blame for the garbage issues. Council member Kristin Palmer has unveiled a draft resolution calling for action against Metro for failing to keep up its twice-weekly trash collections before and after Ida.
Jimmie Woods, the company’s owner, defended Metro during a city council hearing last week, saying the trash hauler had “made several passes through every street.” He contended that people who had missed their trash pickup were those who had evacuated due to the hurricane, which caused at least one resident to call him a liar.
Marla Nelson, a professor of urban planning at the University of New Orleans, noted that the frustration over trash pickup after the hurricane is just the latest blow to a city grappling with a sanitation-worker strike that began last year. Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, New Orleans sanitation workers have pushed for benefits, sick leave and paid time off that they are not given, because they are not city employees.
“This is an issue that has come to the forefront now with all the debris and the depressing need to get this stinky garbage collected, but this has been a problem in the making,” said Nelson, adding that her garbage had been picked up just once in recent weeks — and that she was one of the lucky ones.
Cantrell announced last week another plan to expedite the trash pickup process, called “Operation Mardi Gras,” in which contractors — usually hired by the city during the spring celebration — are being brought in to help collect mountains of trash in communities such as the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and Bywater, which have been particularly affected.
With the initiative’s name, the city is drawing on a proud reputation for being able to clear all parade routes of celebratory cups and beads and trash within hours during Carnival season. But as a truck recently drove up to the transfer station carrying a small metal trailer of bags, resident Charles Walton found the effort almost laughable.
“Pathetic. It is pathetic,” Walton, 71, said as large black flies buzzed around the contents of his truck bed. He had been patient, he said, but the smell just got too bad to bear. “The trash is stinking up the neighborhood,” he said. “Before long, we’re going to see rats. And not little rats. Those big nutria rats.”
Some residents have been outspoken about how trash cans full of hurricane debris, spoiled food and diapers, baking in the heat and left untouched for weeks, have made them feel like “second-class citizens,” as one resident told WWL-TV. Others have said that being asked to put rancid trash in their cars to take it to the temporary garbage drop-off spot was “a slap in the face.”
Jake Madison, who stayed through the storm and later evacuated to Alabama, told The Washington Post there was no way he was placing “fly-infested, leaky” trash bags into his car, calling the city’s plan “a hollow gesture.”
When he and his girlfriend returned to their residence in the Bywater neighborhood this week, Madison spent his first two days back throwing out spoiled, moldy food that had been in their fridge since before the storm. He could not even finish walking his dog, he said, because of the pungent stench and because his pet was tempted to jump into the giant piles of trash that line the street.
He compared the smell to “Bourbon Street at 3 a.m.”
“It’s gross and disgusting,” said Madison, a 35-year-old fundraiser. “No functioning city should have this be a part of it, even with these extraordinary circumstances.”
Lakeitha and David Brooks last week put on rubber boots, masks and gloves so that they could clear their block of at least some of the stomach-wrenching odor by hauling their garbage and trash from their Seventh Ward neighbors to a nearby construction dumpster.
“Right now, I can’t even open our door without the flies swarming,” said Lakeitha Brooks, 33, gesturing toward their block of Frenchmen Street, where each trash receptacle was overflowing and surrounded by a mound of more trash bags and downed tree branches.
But just when they thought they were used to the odor of rotten trash, it got worse. At the edge of the dumpster, as David Brooks, 32, lifted dripping bags covered with maggots, he sometimes gagged and had to walk away from the smell. “On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 20,” he said. “This smell. It makes it unlivable anywhere there is trash.”
Green, the city official, echoed the frustration of the city’s residents but pleaded with them to put into perspective this situation compared with what the city faced after Katrina.
“I understand how irritating it is to have trash piled up in front of the house,” Green said. “But this is what we do in New Orleans: We respond to the challenges. We go solve it. And we will get through this.”