LHSFNA Occupational Health Nurse Peggy Bolz went to Louisiana during the last week of September to assist in hazardous waste training at the South Central Laborers Training and Apprenticeship Fund in Livonia. When Hurricane Rita scattered everyone again that week, classes had to be cancelled, and she was able to visit New Orleans with an “all access” pass provided by local organizers. She filed this report.

From Interstate 110 approaching the city, the first thing you notice is the broken windows of the tall buildings like the Marriott and Hyatt, mostly boarded up. When you get closer, you notice a row of utility poles snapped in half all in the same direction and huge trees uprooted and scattered like toothpicks.

Our first stop in the city was the Superdome where clean up had already begun, so doors were guarded by police and the National Guard. Outside was a mess! The rubber roof of the dome was scattered around in huge piles (a Guardsman cut a piece for a souvenir). The sheer amount of debris is overwhelming: trees, upturned cars, boats in parking lots, building debris and just plain garbage. The stench was very bad in many areas.

We found a group of Hispanic workers on a lunch break outside the Hornets’ arena. They were wearing Tyveks and had dust masks, but nothing else for PPE – no gloves, boots or goggles. Ralph, in our group, spoke with them – turns out most of them were 14 to 15 years old. They had been picked up in Texas by the “Rainbow Company” and brought to the city in the back of a truck. One of the company’s men would drive them to a site, drop them off to clean it up – mostly pile debris in one spot – and return later to pick them up. They never knew what they were going to find, although they hadn’t found any bodies lately.

They had been promised $10/hr, plus food and shelter for the work. Luis (the foreman because he spoke English) says the boss now says $8/hr, and food turned out to be lunch and only sometimes, at that. Shelter consisted of getting dropped off at a grassy area at dark to sleep out in the open on the grass. These kids were covered in bug bites. Luis was fully expecting them all to be turned into Immigration when they were no longer needed. Later in our tour, we did see an “Immigration/Naturalization” bus parked in the FEMA yard.

We next headed to the French Quarter, which really is the least damaged part of the city. No flooding, but the wind knocked out windows, and rain damaged upper floors of many of the hotels. Asbestos and mold are their biggest problems. There are literally hundreds of people cleaning out the buildings and homes; contractor trucks and equipment (most from environmental and asbestos companies) are all around the area. The stench is very strong here, but every street still has mountains of debris piled up. Overflowing dumpsters are everywhere.

Some of the smaller businesses are open – a cigar store, gift shops and bars – none with any evidence of damage. Many of the New Orleans police are driving golf carts with blue lights on top. There are National Guard and many, many law enforcement personnel from other states walking or riding around. The mood is jubilant! Everyone smiles, poses for pictures, says hello and, with little prodding, begins telling a story. We spoke with an elderly gentleman who had been trapped in his attic for nine days. He had no tools to cut a hole in his roof – just a white sheet hanging out the attic window. He was sitting on crates on the corner outside of a bar, his only possession a very old, extremely immaculate bicycle. He planned to stay in the French Quarter forever.

The next day we went first to the K-Mart on Veteran’s Highway where Laborers were working on the mold and asbestos. K-Mart had some wind damage, but had been high enough to avoid the flooding. However, looters couldn’t see in the dark, so they had started small fires which, of course, set off the sprinklers, causing lots of damage. One of the Laborers on the project is from one of my asbestos classes at the New Jersey Building Laborers’ Training and Apprenticeship Fund and had driven down right after Katrina for the work. We were chased away by the owners soon after that. We did get some pictures of their set-up, though.

In total contrast to the French Quarter, the ninth ward looks like a war zone! Not one house or building is undamaged, and most are collapsed or partially collapsed. Even brick homes are pretty much destroyed. Except for some small patches of grass beginning to grow, everything else is brown and dead and eerily quiet. There is nothing living around – no birds or squirrels (what few trees still standing are tilted and dead; most are uprooted). Vehicles are everywhere, too, and all have various water lines marking the rise and fall of the floods. Some floated and were damaged – most are buried in debris.

Every door is marked with two dates – 9/14 (post Katrina inspection) and 9/27 (post Rita, after the area flooded a second time). One door had “9/14 one dog,” then “9/27 no dog found.” It was heartbreaking to see block after block of destruction. There was no clean-up going on when we were there, but it is obvious some streets were cleared for emergency vehicles. There are still roads underwater – mostly under the overpasses. The rumors are that the entire neighborhood will be bulldozed, burned and not rebuilt. There really is no community to return to – schools, churches and stores are all severely damaged if not destroyed.

The destructive power of nature is shocking to see, and the immensity of the rebuilding task ahead is staggering. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m happy to have had the opportunity – through LIUNA, the training center and my work at our health and safety fund – to make a contribution to the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.