Floodwaters give way to festering garbage on Houston streets

HOUSTON — Roiling waters in the streets have given way to festering piles of garbage on the curbs.

Harvey’s record-setting rains created heaps of ruined possessions that now line entire neighborhoods, some nearly up to the rooftops of the homes that were swamped. All that sodden drywall, flooring, furniture, clothing and toys adds up to an estimated 8 million cubic yards in Houston alone, enough to fill the Texans’ football stadium two times over.

Texas and city officials have pledged to make a priority of the monumental task of cleaning it all up, though they stopped short of giving specific timelines, mindful that such cleanups have dragged on longer than anticipated after other major storms.

“We want to get it removed as quickly as possible,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters Thursday.

For now, the piles big and small have become evidence, of sorts, of the losses from more than 200,000 damaged homes up and down the Texas coast.

Not only are the heaps eyesores, but they are starting to give off a musty funk. And the longer they sit, officials warn, they could become havens for mold, not to mention snakes, rats, skunks and other critters. The junk could also turn into projectiles if, heaven forbid, another hurricane strikes.

“I just can’t stand it anymore,” said Peggy Lanigan, who took a break from clearing out her Houston home that flooded for the first time in 22 years.

The city is pushing to complete a “first pass” of debris removal within 30 days, said Derek Mebane, deputy assistant director of Houston’s solid waste department. He said collecting subsequent piles could take months and warned that if Hurricane Irma causes extensive damage in Florida, the cleanup in Houston could be slowed if resources are diverted. While local crews do the pickups, FEMA covers 90 percent of the costs.

As it stands now, clearing even just one Houston street can take days. Some piles are so massive that a single stack of debris from one home can fill an entire truck.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner this week pleaded for help, asking for anyone with heavy equipment suitable for debris removal to reach out.

The trash will go into the city’s existing landfills. San Antonio trucks have been sent in as part of an agreement between the two cities to help each other in disasters, the mayor said.

Soon after the storm hit, state officials suspended some environmental rules on waste removal that they said could impede the pace of disaster recovery, which raised concerns among environmentalists.

Trash looters are another concern. Some homeowners spray-painted messages on mattresses to leave them alone because the debris is needed for insurance claims. Others posted signs saying they were just drying out items they intended to save.

Mike Martinez said a king-sized mattress that had been floating in his bedroom days earlier was taken from his yard along with a La-Z-Boy sectional couch. The $5,000 sofa still looked brand new after the flood but was like a sponge if you sat on it. He couldn’t understand why anyone would take it because it’s contaminated with floodwater and probably mold.

“It was like a parade of people going by looking at the devastation,” Martinez said. “Then there was a parade of people picking up the garbage.”

Overturned sofas, listing mattresses and toppled chairs dominate the rubble while smaller, more intimate items hide in the cracks.

The piles also created a sort of archaeological record of the households from which they came. There’s a moldering red cooler, a beat-up blue kiddie pool, a pornography stash spilling onto the street. Brand-new golf balls, a full jar of mangoes and a twisted artificial Christmas tree. A book titled “The Inheritance of Loss” seemed particularly poignant.

Sherri Blatt’s main concern is that it could be a long wait before the mess is carted away. “This is too long,” she said. “Once all the stuff is gone, I’ll feel safe.”

Almost on cue, a garbage truck rumbled around the corner. But it wasn’t there for flood debris — only for the trash that hadn’t been picked up in a week and was adding its own odor to the mix.

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