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Hurricane Debris Piles Up in Louisiana

Row after row of refrigerators at a landfill in Jefferson Parish, La. Before the cleanup is over, this dump may hold 250,000 fridges.
Howard Berkes, NPR
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Row after row of refrigerators at a landfill in Jefferson Parish, La. Before the cleanup is over, this dump may hold 250,000 fridges.

Most of Hurricane Katrina's vital statistics are well known by now: 1,000 people dead, a million displaced. Hundreds of thousands of homes damaged.

But did you know that in Louisiana alone, 55 million cubic yards of debris have been collected? That's enough to fill the Superdome 11 times.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is supervising one of the most massive cleanup projects ever undertaken. At just one dump site in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish, 450 trucks arrive on a daily basis to dump vegetation, which is turned into mulch from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week.

At other sites, the dumptrucks disgorge sheetrock, furniture, chairs and carpet... the remains of ruined homes. There are also remnants of people's lives, including photo albums and children's toys. "It's sad," says Mike Bourgeois of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "You look at it and you look at the people's lives that are in this debris."

Then there are dumps reserved for potentially toxic material, including refrigerators and freezers. At one Jefferson Parish landfill, 5,500 refrigerators reside, creating an unrelenting stench. Before it's over, a quarter-million are expected.

Workers in splash suits, wearing respirators, drain refrigerant and pour bleach on rotting food, working through bouts of nausea.

There are 75 landfills and dump sites in use in Louisiana alone, and it could be a year before the trucks stop coming.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.