Trash-Talking Locals Pitch In to Cleanup New Orleans

The effect can be startling in a city where hurricane debris still litters so many streets. A crew — make that krewe — of volunteers visits a storm-marred street, picks up garbage, mows the grass and sweeps the streets, leaving the neighborhood pristine.

Not that members of KATRINA — the Krewe Aiding in Trash Removal in the New Orleans Area — do not have their own homes to worry about.

"I've been trying to get my house back to normal," 49-year-old banker Stephen Lousteau said as he stuffed weeds, old beer bottles and other garbage into a big plastic bag during a recent KATRINA outing. "We're still living upstairs, still have no kitchen. But everybody needs to do more than just take care of their problems. Everybody needs to pull together to get our city back."

The Katrina krewe ("krewe" is the New Orleans spelling for a Mardi Gras parade club) is separate from the big debris removal effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The more than 100 volunteers with this group target a different section of the city each time they go out and remove all litter, debris and plain old dirt. They also mow — medians and even yards — and sweep.

KATRINA members also handed out trash bags to people along the Mardi Gras parade routes in February and staged a special cleanup around the grounds of the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Becky Zaheri, who suffered little damage at her own New Orleans home from the Aug. 29 hurricane, dreamed up the KATRINA movement to help her hometown recover.

"I drove home and saw all this litter and debris everywhere and it seemed like nothing was being done about it," Zaheri said. "I was born and raised here and I wanted to see it cleaned up. I wanted it to be a place we'd feel good about."

Zaheri e-mailed everyone in her address book. Those interested were asked to grab a box of heavy duty garbage bags and join her for a morning during the Thanksgiving holiday week last November.

"It just took off from there," Zaheri said.

Cleaning get-togethers were held Wednesdays and Saturdays. Some were volunteers from out of state, but the majority were New Orleanians, many who gained a deeper sense of community after the storm wrecked the city.

"There's a sense that this is greater than us as individuals," said New Orleans resident Frank Davis, 65, as he stacked bags of trash on a street corner.

"It's bigger than one person, one house. We all have to help each other," said Davis, whose home was not severely damaged.

Workers have included people with major damage to their own houses and those who are already settled back into their homes.

"A lot of people want to help," said Marjorie McKeithen, 40, an attorney who has had her in-laws living with her for the last six months while they rebuild. "This is something everybody can do. We may not be carpenters or builders, but anyone can clean."

Christine Zazulak proved the point.

With her 1-year-old son Philip in a carrier on her chest and Stephen, 5, and David, 8, clutching garbage bags, Zazulak was hard at work.

Zaheri foresees the krewe's role changing in the coming months.

"We're cutting back to once a month for cleanup and focusing on teaching people to keep the city clean," Zaheri said. "Our neighborhood associations are starting to do just what we hoped. They're starting to organize cleanups. So we're going to be working with the schools and other groups trying to teach people to keep New Orleans clean."