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This story was published in partnership with Southerly.
As crews in New Orleans cleared roads, tarped roofs, and worked to restore power following Hurricane Ida this August, something else was festering—literally. Parts of the city went weeks without garbage collection in the aftermath of the storm, leaving food and wet debris to rot in the heat, and attracting swarms of disease-carrying insects and vermin.
Alexander Wallace, a Black actor living in the city's Seventh Ward, said the last time his trash was picked up before the storm was August 19—10 days before Ida hit. It wasn't picked up again until September 29, a full month after the hurricane. Wallace's neighborhood was one of the last in the city to have its trash hauled away.
"It was dreadful," he said. "The scent in the air, the maggots, and the clouds of flies. You'd open your door and there would be a cloud of insect hell that would fill the space."
Like many residents, Wallace complained to the city multiple times—between September and October, the city's non-emergency service line received 5,110 calls to report missed trash pickups, with the Seventh Ward, a diamond-shaped, historically-Black neighborhood, representing the most calls. Wallace said he wrote his city councilperson, called 311, and tagged officials on social media, but his efforts were fruitless.
"The 7th Ward is on week 7 without a trash pick up," Wallace wrote on Facebook on September 23, tagging New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, and city council members. "It's unbelievable that this would be allowed to occur in the City of New Orleans, don't you think?"
Dealing with tons of trash isn't out of the ordinary for the City of New Orleans. By the end of Carnival season, city clean-up crews and paid volunteers collect about 900 tons of garbage on average each year. Onlookers have called the efforts "mesmerizing" to watch. More than a century of Mardi Gras celebrations have refined the city's approach to bulk garbage collection down to a science. A "parade" of sanitation workers, tractors, trucks, and street sweepers mobilize to collect the trash and clean the city after Fat Tuesday.
Similarly, Louisiana is also no stranger to storm cleanup— Ida hit on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The difference with Ida is that New Orleans' trash pileup was compounded by labor disputes and 10-day power outages, all while the storm tore a swath of destruction from New Orleans to New York, killing at least 82 people, and causing more than $95 billion in damage.
The hurricane is just one of many more in the region's future as we reckon with our changing climate—but it also serves as an example of how much progress the public sector has yet to make when it comes to a comprehensive response to climate disasters.
After the storm, New Orleans stopped collecting recycling and shifted from a twice-weekly trash pickup schedule to once-a-week. Matt Torri, the city's sanitation director, says the move will "bring some predictability" so residents can better prepare for their trash collection, but residents say they're worried about the health and environmental impacts of leaving it out longer.
One of Mayor Latoya Cantrell's short-term solutions was to open up a drop-off site in Wallace's neighborhood, to "allow residents to dispose of bagged household garbage," she wrote in a statement on September 15. New Orleanians were furious.
"The idea that it is appropriate in any capacity to ask people to take biohazard into their vehicles," was unfathomable, Wallace said. "There's a reason why in garbage trucks, the people who are driving are separated from the toxicity of the contents in their truck. It's dangerous."
When garbage was piling up in the Seventh Ward, which was at one point the most prosperous Black business district in the country until the city destroyed it to make way for a new interstate, Emily McDonald started making "trash sculptures." It started with a pile she formed into a wizard, cutting and shaping the garbage into a wide-eyed, bearded magician complete with a wand made out of a box of Blue Runner red beans.
Photos by Emily McDonald.
"I did it kind of as a joke, to make people smile," McDonald said. But she was deeply concerned, too. "It's hard to laugh off the feeling that this particular situation is a direct result of neglect by the city," she added. "Dressing the trash up is just a way to briefly take our minds off the fact that this neighborhood has essentially been left to rot."
'It stinks outside and the rodents are coming'
The potential health effects of "uncollected household waste," a.k.a. trash, are well-documented. Research in low and middle-income countries has shown that piles of garbage containing organic materials can attract rats, cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes and cause health risks if they aren't collected or are inadequately managed.
Uncollected garbage can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, as the trash collects water when it rains. "Garbage, of course, attracts rodents. And there are many different kinds of bacteria that rodents can carry and can be a public-health hazard—things like leptospirosis (a bacterial disease) from the urine of rats and mice." said Dr. Preston A. Marx, a career virologist at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Health. "Humans can become infected with that and become quite sick."
Picolla Tushy, a burlesque performer living in the Seventh Ward, said the mosquitoes swarmed during the weeks the trash remained uncollected; at one point her entire body was covered in bites, she said.
"This was causing a lot of mental-health problems in a lot of people who are already dealing with trauma," said Tushy. "It's rotting food and literal shit. Everything you do is just causing more trash. If you try to cook yourself dinner you're like, 'Well I better eat all of it because if I don't then what am I going to do with it? Because I don't have any more room in my house.' And it stinks outside and the rodents are coming."
The U.S. produces three times the global average of trash, which is already rapidly growing: A 2019 study from Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk research firm, found that more than two billion tons of municipal solid waste is produced each year—enough to fill more than 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. Without serious intervention, current levels of global waste are set to increase by 70 percent by 2050, according to a report from the World Bank, jumping to more than 3.4 billion tons.
Many of the factors driving the world's waste problem, such as population growth and expanding cities, are also some of the biggest factors behind climate change. It's estimated that more than 1.6 billion tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent were generated from waste disposal and treatment in 2016, amounting to about five percent of global emissions that year.
Research shows the South will be disproportionately affected and bear the brunt of the economic impacts from climate change. But post-disaster waste management is becoming a more urgent problem: According to a recent analysis from Climate Central, the U.S. is averaging a billion-dollar disaster every 20 days.
As one crisis looms, other disasters come daily for the people responsible for removing New Orleans' trash: The city's sanitation workers are underpaid, overworked, and face unsafe working conditions. In 2020, a group of Black sanitation workers, known as "hoppers" for their job jumping off trucks to grab garbage cans, went on strike, criticizing their employer Metro Service Group, which contracts with the city, for low wages and a lack of safety equipment during the pandemic. The strike ended abruptly in September 2020, and a year later, some had returned to the job despite few structural changes beyond less than $1 dollar increase to hourly wages and overtime pay.
After Ida, several people running for state and local offices volunteered to collect trash, drawing attention to the issue and also the "revolting" conditions that quickly forced them to abandon their cloth masks for respirators.
Because working conditions—and pay—for sanitation workers barely improved after the strike last year, tasking them with cleaning up the mess and debris of a hurricane, and the rotten contents of the city's refrigerators and freezers, is as unreasonable as it sounds. At the beginning of November, sanitation workers for Republic Services, another company contracted by the city, went on strike, citing unsafe working conditions, low pay, and equipment failures. One worker described working for the company as, "hell on wheels."
'Left to rot'
Living in a city with crumbling infrastructure, a history of rampant political corruption, and a police force so abusive they were put under a federal consent decree, many New Orleanians are accustomed to relying on themselves and their neighbors after crises. After Ida, mutual aid groups stepped up to distribute food, water, ice, and other vital supplies to their communities.
Some residents volunteered to haul garbage themselves. "Some Good Samaritans were taking trash in bits and bobs to the dump for our neighborhood," said Wallace.
It didn't make much of a dent, but it was a welcome relief.
"Getting the trash out of your living space is pretty much a basic element of life," said John Stanton, editor of the city's local alternative newspaper, Gambit Weekly, who also lives in the Seventh Ward. "When that collapses, it's a signal to the people living in the neighborhood: 'you don't matter, no one cares.' For little kids growing up and looking around, they're seeing that they've just been abandoned literally to trash."
In the spirit of New Orleans, residents organized a "trash parade" in September, partially in protest of the city's inaction. It rained, and still, dozens of people marched in trash-themed costumes, dumping their garbage on the steps of City Hall, chanting, "What do we want? Trash pickup! When do we want it? Now!"
Simonette Berry, assistant business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 478, attended with her stepson. She said the hoppers honked and waved at the parade from their trucks. The event shined "a light on the plight of the hoppers and raising awareness about the ridiculousness of being told by the mayor to take your own trash to the dump and then being billed for trash pickup," Berry said.
City officials haven't yet announced when a regular, twice-weekly pickup or recycling collection will return. However, Mayor Cantrell did announce plans to increase funding for sanitation in the city's 2022 budget, boosting the department by about $3 million. She's also committed to rebidding the contract held by Metro Service Group, citing the hauler's history of falling behind on pickups.
When the trash finally was picked up, Tushy felt a huge sense of relief. "With every bag tossed in I felt a little bit of weight coming off of me, and I just burst into tears," she said. But that doesn't mean she believes the problem has been solved. "Sanitation issues in New Orleans are pre-Ida and pre-pandemic," she said.
For Tushy and many of her neighbors, the only way to resolve the trash crisis in the city is to pay the hoppers what they deserve. "We've held protests and we've been demanding for well over a year to pay these people a livable wage," she said. "Their job is dangerous. Their job puts them at a health risk every day and we need to make sure that we're taking care of them."
As climate change continues to get worse, warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels will likely cause more severe hurricanes. Unless serious abatement strategies are implemented and prove successful, coastal cities in particular, like New Orleans, will likely need to be prepared for future superstorms like Ida, and be ready to clean up the trash afterward.
"We live in New Orleans, we know we can expect hurricanes, especially given the state of the climate," Wallace said. "It would make sense if the city would have alternative emergency plans in place."