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What's That Smell? Garbage From Hurricane Ida Still Hasn't Been Picked Up In New Orleans

Trash, vegetal debris and storm damage waits to be picked up on Tchoupitoulas Street, on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.
Ryan Nelsen
Trash, vegetal debris and storm damage waits to be picked up on Tchoupitoulas Street, on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

It’s been nearly three weeks since Hurricane Ida battered New Orleans, and while power has been restored to the city and businesses are closer than ever to reopening to pre-Ida standards, residents are still waiting for routine trash pickups.

While branches and storm-damaged property make up the bulk of the curbside collections, some residents haven't seen a trash pickup since the storm.

Others have seen a steep decline in the number of weekly visits and can now smell their city-administered cans baking in the late summer heat. There are even some mounds of garbage that have sat in the front of residents’ homes well before the aftermath of the Category 4 storm.

Due to labor issues, there are hardly any employees available to pick up the rotting trash. Mayor LaToya Cantrell has announced the Department of Sanitation will allow residents to dispose of bagged household trash at the Elysian Fields Transfer Station.

A worker at the facility said the first day of the program saw around 200 vehicles. In the first hour of Thursday, he saw around 100 cars, including one person with a flatbed trailer that had collected their entire neighborhood's trash cans.

Vehicles line up to drop off trash at the Elysian Fields Transfer Station, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
Ryan Nelsen
Vehicles line up to drop off trash at the Elysian Fields Transfer Station, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.

The city's trash collection agency Metro Service Group had fallen behind on collections before Ida as well. Workers for the agency held a strike in May 2020 for a higher salary than $10.25 and protection equipment against COVID-19.

In a press release Wednesday, Cantrell said that staffing remains an issue due to the national labor shortage due to the pandemic.

The city has contracted Ramelli Waste, LLC, from Kenner to aid Richard’s Disposal Inc., and Metro Services Group is getting the help of seven trucks from IV Waste. But city officials said that finding additional outside bidders has been difficult. On Wednesday, the city extended the contract three days in hopes of finding more bids.

Even before Ida, residents in the Bywater say they were only seeing Metro trash collectors around twice a month. After Ida’s landfall in late August, many in the neighborhood have not had their trash collected even once.

"Service has been spotty here since a month or two before the storm," said Jesse Webber, who sat on his Lesseps Street stoop Thursday morning surrounded by bagged trash.

Webber predominantly traverses the city on a bike but says he may have to rent a truck to bring his trash to Elysian Fields as it is now rotting.

He is quick to remember the labor dispute involving Metro and collectors from last year and said he does not blame the hoppers who aren't returning to work.

"If the company can't find workers, it's because they are not paying enough," Webber said.

Unlike many in the city, Webber is able to firmly close the lids on his cans which prevents the smell from leaking out. When the cans are finally empty, Webber says he will drill holes in the bottom of the can for better drainage. Many in the neighborhood are discussing the best way to clean the cans once they are empty.

When the discussion turns to who is to blame for the delays in service, many have focused their rage on Cantrell, who said three days before the storm hit that the city was "absolutely prepared" to have an emergency trash pickup.

In true New Orleans fashion, a Facebook group has scheduled a "Trash Parade" to protest the amount of trash sitting in the September sun. The march will begin Saturday morning and asks those participating in the protest to bring fake trash bags to City Hall.

City Council members, however, have taken a more serious approach to the matter, calling for a joint meeting Friday morning between the Public Works and Budget Committees to ask questions and look for solutions.

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