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In Houston, Debris From Hurricane Harvey Could Take Months To Haul Away

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After hurricanes battered Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, millions of people are now having to go through their damaged homes and see what they can save. The rest winds up in a trash heap. Almost a month after Harvey flooded Houston, mounds of debris still fill the city streets. Clearing it all is a monumental task. And as Houston Public Media's Gail Delaughter reports, it could take months.

GAIL DELAUGHTER, BYLINE: An estimated 126,000 homes were damaged in Houston because of Harvey's floods. And all over the city, you see things that once made a house a home - the pillows and blankets, the books and the toys piled high on the curb, ruined by the floodwaters. James Bennett is with Houston's Solid Waste Department.

JAMES BENNETT: Basically we find everything - whole homes, you know, pictures, furniture, everything me or you or anybody else would have in their home.

DELAUGHTER: As we stood next to a mound of debris in a quiet subdivision in southeast Houston, workers down the block threw waterlogged chairs into the back of a trash truck. A few doors down, Robert Ayala is going through 17 years' worth of stuff.

ROBERT AYALA: It's terrible. It's awful. I feel for those people that go through it. I have not too many words to say about it, but it's awful. It's a nightmare.

DELAUGHTER: This was the first flood Ayala and his wife, Lily, experienced. Lily Ayala says the water came in so fast they could only save themselves.

LILY AYALA: Oh, my God, how much water was it, baby? About...

R. AYALA: Two, 3 feet.

L. AYALA: Two, 3 feet - was a lot. I mean I could kick it around (laughter).

DELAUGHTER: Ayala says they finally had to wade out of the neighborhood while floating their young granddaughter in an ice chest. Now they have to send most of their worldly possessions to a landfill.

L. AYALA: Everything. We lost everything. Like I said, if you go to the backyard, you'll see everything we saved. And that was very little, really, for all our life, you know? We probably lost, like, more than 90 percent of our - everything. I think it's just total loss, everything.

DELAUGHTER: James Bennett says his crews have been working steadily in the neighborhood for three days.

BENNETT: Right now we're doing about 12-hour days. And we're trying to keep our employees fresh because we don't want them to get too fatigued.

DELAUGHTER: And there's still a lot more work ahead. Officials estimate Harvey left behind enough debris to fill about 25 college football stadiums. Dr. Umair Shah with Harris County Public Health says much of the debris was soaked in sewage and contains all sorts of other hazards, including mold. And then there's other risks.

UMAIR SHAH: Nails from boards can still be there. And so if you have children that may be playing around there, you can be at risk for tetanus.

DELAUGHTER: For the Ayala family, the reminders of what they lost are going to be around for a little longer. Lily Ayala says she'd love to get her home in good enough shape where they could live in it again. But right now they're staying with family and looking for a more permanent living situation.

L. AYALA: You know what? It's so funny because I'm - like I said, I'm happy every day. I wake up happy. And I know we're going to go on, and that's it. But my daughters are very sad. They cry instead.

DELAUGHTER: The cleanup will likely cost around $200 million. Officials say crews will probably be out in the city's neighborhoods for months, hauling off debris. For NPR News, I'm Gail Delaughter in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARIS AND JASON ROMERO SONG, "LOST LULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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