Every disaster—manmade or natural—is likely as unique as Tolstoy’s unhappy family, set apart by the incommensurable that lurks in pain and privation, the transforming and deforming nature of grief.
Nevertheless, over the last few years I have begun to notice a common theme that binds them all together: every calamity creates inordinate amounts of trash. I first really noticed this in 2006, after Israel attacked Beirut and laid large parts of the city in ruins. A familiar story, unfortunately. But then the New York Times ran a report in the aftermath of the attacks that contained an amazing image: a traffic jam of trucks carrying rubble curve off into the distance, on their way to a landfill stuck out into an otherwise picture-perfect Mediterranean sea, on a perfectly brilliant day. A billboard on the beach advertises some kind of tourist attraction—picturesque rocks rearing up out of a deep-blue sea—a tourguide’s version of the Mediterranean incongruously stuck into an a much more painful and intractable reality. Then again, that little point being pounded into terra firma by shovels and grabbers in the far distance may just be the foundation for an upscale hotel meant to deliver on the promise contained in the billboard. The French call this kind of thing mise en abime, or “putting into the abyss.” It’s never been clear to me what the abyss has to do with such a playful device, but in this particular context I think I am staring straight into it.
Hurricane Katrina created an estimated 22 million tons of garbage, which comes to 3.5 million truckloads. It sat around for weeks and weeks on people’s front lawns before local collection services figured out how to separate it—more or less, I am sure—into construction and demolition debris, household waste, and hazardous waste, all of which have different destinations. Construction and demolition debris, normally inert, went into Chef Menteur landfill, right next-door to an immigrant community, as well as into Bayou Sauvage and Chantilly. Eventually the community managed to persuade local authorities that they deserved better than to live virtually on top of the disgusting stew people all over New Orleans wanted out of their yards as soon as possible. I wouldn’t have believed it was inert either.
Most recently, Hurricane Ike created another mountain range of debris. My friend Barbara, who went to help in Red Cross shelters in the aftermath of the storm, spent time on Galveston. Her pictures of the trash created by the storm are mind-boggling.
Airplanes have broken through the walls of their hangars, noses hanging by a thread. Oddly crumpled monsters sit in the street, giving no hint of what they once might have been. Yards are carpeted with broken possessions. A pickup truck has straw sticking out of the cab, which must have started, pre-wind, in the pickup’s bed.
What were once gardens now are strangely reminiscent of graveyards. Brick walls lie in piles outside the wood frames of houses still standing, while other houses have just buckled to earth, neatly depositing an intact roof at a graceful angle in the driveway. One desperate homeowner tried to sell his wreck without benefit of realtor, leaning a handpainted sign against the debris pile that was once a house with the plea, “Make Offer.”
All the devastation—$11 billion worth of trash—is going to go into local landfill in the next couple of weeks and will be covered up and over by Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage collector headquartered just up the road in Houston and undoubtedly ready to receive the windfall.
As the British say, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Nevertheless, someone is bound to live within reach of the leachate plume that will eventually form downstream of wherever it goes.