The images of the damage wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have almost completely faded from the national media.
Yet to visit many parts of New Orleans, indeed many areas throughout the Gulf Coast region, is to see devastation that, absent the 15 to 20 ft. of water that was present immediately after the storms hit, is every bit as horrific. Nearly a year and a half after the disaster, it’s become painfully apparent that this cleanup will be ongoing for years, and the scars will be visible for much longer than that. In an effort to restore some sense of normalcy for those who can return, many local contractors, such as Thibodaux Lumber, have been actively involved in recovery efforts from day one and, armed with some of the latest technology available, have made difficult but measurable progress.
Getting the Call
A company of 25 employees, Thibodaux Lumber specializes in land clearing, site prep and various logging-related operations. According to Roger deVille, project manager for the Thibodaux, La.-based firm, based on their expertise and equipment availability, they were called into service immediately after Katrina hit.
“We own a number of shredders and horizontal grinders, valuable commodities in a cleanup effort,” he said. “So, right after the storm, we were contacted to size-reduce the incredibly massive volumes of material collected from city streets and brought to central collection points. To improve the load out facet of that effort, we spoke to Scott Equipment…and took delivery of a Fuchs Model MHL 331 loader on a rent-to-purchase agreement. We already had a decent grinding operation; we needed an equally efficient means to feed it.”
Interestingly enough, he added, despite the obvious value of their grinding capability, Thibodaux’s initial contribution to the cleanup effort did not involve its grinder at all, but rather, focused on the load out.
“We spent the first three months after Katrina hit at one of the city’s many collection sites — this one happened to be near the New Orleans airport — loading walking-floor trailers with debris collected from nearby Metarie and Kenner,” he said. “It was a grueling three months’ work: 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week. All that kept us going was the feeling that we were contributing to the effort.”
Efficiency in Loadout
Though massive in size, the operation at the Kenner site was an exercise in efficiency. Material collected from curbsides and from other cleanup efforts was dumped onto the ground, pushed by a dozer into a pile, then loaded into trailers to be hauled off to the landfill. It was here that the features inherent in the Fuchs model they acquired proved most valuable to the Thibodaux operation.
“This is a smooth machine with extremely stout hydraulics,” he said. “We were encountering just about everything out there, and quickly found that anything we could get the jaws of the grapple around would be securely handled. In addition, the loader was excellent for fuel economy which, over a long period such as we worked, contributed greatly to on-site efficiency.”
Additional loader benefits included minimal maintenance demands and easy access to areas that did require regular service. What proved one of the most valuable features, however, was the handler’s cab riser function. According to deVille, that feature alone made perhaps the greatest contribution to an effective load-out process.
“This job was all about how much material we could move and how quickly we could do it. Having the ability to be better than 17 feet up in the air and looking directly into the trailer allowed us to better place material. When we were faced with a particularly oversized object, we could easily take that object out or, using the grapple’s rotator, reposition it to maximize load density. In three months, we loaded close to a half million cubic yards of material at that site alone and the Fuchs loader played a huge part in allowing us to keep the pace. It was just invaluable.”
From Bad to Worse
When Thibodaux’s contract at Kenner wrapped up, the company moved immediately to nearby Chalmette, which, like the city’s now-infamous Lower Ninth Ward, proved to be one of the hardest hit communities in the New Orleans area.
“Whereas in New Orleans, there were many sections that were spared any real damage, at Chalmette there was moderate to severe damage throughout,” said deVille. “As a result, almost every structure in this community of 32,000 was slated to be leveled. We were called on to handle the downsizing of material at a huge collection site prior to disposal. The volumes of debris were just mind-boggling. There were literally small mountains of debris on that multi-acre waterfront site that had to be fed to our Doppstadt Grinder and hauled away.
deVille had good reason to be amazed at the volumes of debris he was seeing. It is estimated that Katrina left 22 million tons (20 million t) of debris in her wake, more than half of that in New Orleans. To put that into perspective and shed some light on the scope of the cleanup and disposal effort, that volume represents the same amount of trash the city generates in 34 years.
At the Chalmette site, one of the area’s largest, Thibodaux Lumber kept a breakneck pace, this time alternating between feeding its grinder and trailers.
“This site was so huge, there was literally no downtime,” said deVille. “We often worked throughout the night just to keep from falling behind and, again, the cab-riser function of the Fuchs unit proved an excellent feature for us. In a normal grinding operation, debris has been fairly sorted-through and any unshreddables removed — that was far from the case at Chalmette. So being able to look directly into the hopper of the shredder, spot any undesirable material and remove it, saved us time. More importantly, however, it greatly reduced the risk of damage to the shredder. If we spotted an unshreddable, we just shut the grinder down, removed the item and continued along.”
Long Road Back
According to deVille, the company’s part of the Chalmette cleanup resulted in the company processing more than 900,000 cu. yds. (688,000 cu m) of debris. After about a year of solid work at that site, the firm moved on to other FEMA-sponsored projects.
“We did various site clearing and site prep jobs for FEMA to allow them to bring in trailers to house returning residents until they could rebuild. This has been a series of projects unlike any other we’ve ever done — or hope to do again — but having the right equipment like the Fuchs loader allowed us to make what we felt was a contribution to getting this area back on track.”