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Treasures mix with piles of trash as a huge disposal effort looms

NEW ORLEANS, La.—Bernard Dunklin's pills sit next to a baby stroller. Glenn Dominick's legal papers flutter in the breeze. Susan Devlin's medical records are stuck to a water-damaged photo and an elementary school certificate of achievement for Samantha Devlin.

"There's shoes, thousands of coolers, cots, clothes, it's all mixed up now," said Kevin Webb, after he dumped a truckload of garbage from the Superdome in a vacant lot a mile from downtown New Orleans. "There were a lot of people packed to leave, but then they couldn't take their stuff with them. It's all toxic now."

Many of the tens of thousands of people who fled their homes to seek refuge in the Superdome and the city's convention center grabbed their most important belongings before they left, their vital documents, their medicines, their photos and keepsakes, the things they didn't want to lose when they faced losing everything.

But in the chaos of the evacuation, they weren't allowed to take most of those things with them when they were finally airlifted or bused out of the city. Now, the treasures are mixed with the trash, and much of it will be burned or dumped in landfills as this city struggles to clean up the millions of tons of debris and garbage left by Hurricane Katrina.

At the makeshift dump near downtown, the National Guard is depositing bags of trash and neighbors are dumping the contents of their refrigerators. A bag labeled "biohazardous waste" lies mixed in with cots from the Superdome and fences that were used to corral people outside for days until they could be evacuated. Flies swarm in the pile and maggots have infested some of the bags.

Trucks are also taking Superdome debris to the Jefferson Parish landfill, where dump trucks have been lining up. Downed limbs are being piled up on a vacant lot in Algiers with a pre-Katrina sign on it saying "No Dumping." Mayor Ray Nagin has said New Orleans garbage will have to head to landfills all over the country at some point.

The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of removing the debris and garbage from the entire Gulf Coast. The ultimate plan in Mississippi is to burn what's burnable and crush everything else, according to Michael Logue of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps estimates 20 million cubic yards of debris—enough to fill 300 football stadiums 50 feet high—will need to be dealt with in Mississippi alone. An additional 17 million cubic yards of Louisiana trash must be disposed of, not counting what's scattered around New Orleans—everything from cars crushed by houses to houses destroyed by floodwaters.

The Corps has not yet estimated how much garbage and debris will need to be hauled from New Orleans, where the only city dump was flooded. Debris removal can't even begin in earnest until the city is dry, said Dana Finney, Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman in Baton Rouge.

Meantime, some of the garbage is being collected in makeshift dumps that are springing up around the city. And city contractors are already working to clean up the French Quarter and the Central Business District, hauling the trash to the landfill in Jefferson Parish.

Finney said the parish governments would ultimately decide where and how they wanted the rubbish disposed of. There are no plans to let people sort through the garbage to retrieve belongings or important documents.

Officials will also have to figure out how to dispose of the thousands of houses that have been damaged beyond repair, some of them with lead and even asbestos in them. Plaquemines Parish officials are already asking residents to let them know if they want their homes bulldozed.

No such effort has begun in New Orleans, where entire neighborhoods may have to be destroyed because the homes there were under water so long they're no longer structurally sound. And they're developing toxic black mold.

In the French Quarter, Glen LeDay, an engineer and New Orleans native, spent Sunday picking up garbage.

"I'm just doing this to help get my city back together," he said, working alongside Roderick Johnson Sr. of Atlanta, who came down for the job. The men were taking the trash to the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf behind the French Market, where, presumably, someone else would pick it up at some point.

In Algiers, which was largely spared by the storm and never flooded, another makeshift dump has sprouted up in the parking lot of an abandoned Schwegmann's grocery store. The orange upholstered chairs from the city's convention center are mixed in with fly-infested bags of meat and old bread.

Eddie Dahab worked to build a fence around the head-high pile of garbage.

"We're going to make a gate over there for the trucks so nobody can get in there, no humans, no children, because this is contaminated garbage," he explained.

A dirty pink teddy bear and a little girl's makeup kit sit together on the edge of the pile.

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(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald. Gary Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal and Thomas Fitzgerald of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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