The sight of a garbage claw is one of the more reassuring bits of scenery these days in Baton Rouge. On streets clogged with debris, the machines scooping up ruined furniture and drywall in people's yards call to mind the municipal dump trucks that clear a few days' trash in a matter of minutes.
But officials say it will take months to shovel away the huge piles of waste left after floods wrecked the Baton Rouge area two weeks ago — even though crews are working seven days a week in punishing heat and even with an emergency order that speeds the process by allowing carpets, mattresses and furniture to be dumped with construction debris.
A look at how the debris travels from curb to landfill reveals how fraught the messy work is with emotions and painstaking labor, as residents and professionals walk the line between cleaning up and adhering to environmental codes.
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On Thursday morning, what's known as a "knuckleboom truck" with a giant claw to haul up debris and drop it into two open-air compartments, started working its way down Platt Drive, just off Greenwell Springs Road in Baton Rouge. Its two containers had a total capacity of about 100 cubic yards — in rough terms, it's the size of a semi-trailer.
A life's worth of household belongings was loaded into the truck, operated by the DRC Emergency Services, the company the East Baton Rouge government hired to clear debris in the city of Baton Rouge and other parts of the parish not including Zachary, Central and Baker.
A man serving as a monitor with the firm Thompson Consulting Services checked to make sure the debris fit standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Monitors are necessary because if the waste isn't collected and disposed of properly, the city-parish can't get reimbursed for the costs by FEMA.)
It took nearly two hours for the truck to fill up and dump at a landfill, meaning it would probably pick up no more than four loads a day, said Wes Holden, director of operations at Thompson, standing on Platt Drive in a reflective vest and a hardhat.
The truck could well have room for only one or two household's worth of stuff. On a street with debris from 100 dwellings, it would take perhaps 12 to 25 days to clear just that road using one truck.
The DRC haulers are inspected again by the monitoring service once they arrive at the landfill. By using handheld scanning devices, monitors can relay information almost instantaneously about how much debris has been picked up and where — unlike after Katrina, in which similar work could take days or weeks, Holden noted.
By Friday afternoon, detritus from several more houses had been removed from Platt Drive, but the majority of the street, as with the rest of the neighborhood, remained dotted with trash mounds comprised of everything from rotting wood to wet toys to decaying food.
Those streets are good places to practice breathing through the mouth. To help tolerate the icky taste that sticks to the tongue, try eating apples, one debris professional advised on site.
A knee-jerk reaction might be that officials should simply order more trucks to churn through more debris more quickly.
But Holden said the number of debris trucks on the road — on Thursday there were 76 haulers working the city-parish — is determined by striking a balance between speed and safety.
"If we were to load this street with trucks, I know it would provide relief to the residents, but it could cause safety issues," he said.
Holden said adding too many dumpster vehicles too quickly also could lead to less experienced people being hired, which is another safety concern.
For now, the local dump in the north Baton Rouge community of Alsen appears to have the capacity to handle all the rubbish.
There's 5 million cubic yards of space remaining at Ronaldson Field, the main repository for the parish's flood debris, said its manager Beau Brian, on Friday. Given the landfill's method of compacting the detritus, the field can actually accommodate the equivalent of 10 million cubic yards of debris, he said.
DRC said the city-parish could generate a total of 400,000 cubic yards of debris from the flood, according to a preliminary estimate.
Ronaldson Field, a private landfill just north of the ExxonMobil plant in Baton Rouge, is the primary dump for the parish's flood debris because it's the one that's permitted for construction and demolition waste. Most of the flood's debris is stuff like drywall and furniture, which falls into the construction and demolition category.
Everyday municipal waste, on the other hand, goes to the East Baton Rouge Parish North landfill.
Hanging somewhat in the balance is electronic waste like televisions and computers, also known as e-waste.
On Thursday, e-waste was being picked up by debris trucks and was being dumped at Ronaldson Field, which isn't permitted for e-waste.
But Kristy Fuentes, vice-president of DRC, the debris contractor for the city-parish, said her company is combing through the mounds at Ronaldson to fish out televisions and computers and other electronics and is dumping them at North Landfill, the public dump, which does allow e-waste.
Officials encourage people to donate dried-out electronics to Capital Area Corporate Recycling Council at 1400 Main St. instead of throwing them away.
Residents are asked to segregate their trash into separate piles: normal trash; vegetation; construction and demolition debris including carpet, drywall, furniture, lumber mattresses and plumbing; white goods such as washers, dryers, stoves and water heaters; electronics; and household hazardous waste like aerosol cans, batteries, pesticides and other chemicals.
But as residents excavate their flooded homes, there's not much space on the sidewalk for separate piles, not to mention the added toil of segregating debris on the part of flood survivors who are already physically and emotionally exhausted.
"He just picked up my bed," said 22-year-old Raimie Rogers, who watched from her driveway on Platt Drive as metal claw snatched up piles of her belongings.
"We worked hard for our things," she said, with a surgical mask over her nose and mouth.
Officials say they realize residents may not have the ability to divide their debris perfectly, which can lead to complications down the line.
A small aerosol can, which is considered hazardous waste, for example, could end up hidden and commingled with construction debris and get dumped in the wrong place.
"I know that people are not separating out their debris," said Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley. "Things sort of happened overnight. We didn't anticipate 30 inches of rain...We didn't expect widespread flooding like we got. So we didn't have time to get out the sorting news out before they already started mixing up the waste streams."
But Langley said the sorting is still happening at staging areas or at landfills.
"We're working. We want this debris off. We want this to go as quickly as we can," said Karen Khonsari, director of environmental services for East Baton Rouge Parish. She said officials are now keeping an eye on a possible storm that could hit the Gulf Coast.
"We're sensitive to the citizens. It's tough to come home and see your life sitting at the curb. And we need to get this off and we're working very diligently to do this," she said. "Let's just be prayerful the storm doesn't come our way."