Mark Urbach surveyed the debris gutted from his home in Meyerland.
Mark Urbach surveyed the debris gutted from his home in Meyerland.
Photo by Joseph Fanelli

As Fetid Post-Harvey Trash Piles Linger, So Do Health Risks

The pile of trash outside Mark Urbach’s home in Meyerland stands more than five feet high and covers nearly every inch of grass on his front lawn.

It has the standard collection of debris seen on curbsides and lawns in thousands of homes in Houston and on the Texas Gulf Coast – chairs, moldy couches, drywall mixed with pink insulation – but also decades of memorabilia from Urbach’s Disney collection. Urbach, who runs a pediatric dentist’s office with his son, Alan, is known to his clients as “Dr. Mickey” and has cultivated his entire practice, and life, around that image. His home, a few hundred feet south of Brays Bayou, was lined top to bottom with Mickey Mouse-themed lamps, posters, board games and even cutlery.

Now, as with many of his neighbors and other homeowners across Houston, those possessions are stashed on the front lawn. As many as 126,000 homes were severely damaged across the Houston area because of flooding from Hurricane Harvey, and as residents begin the process of gutting their homes, the Harris County Public Health Department is reminding everyone that anything that can’t be disinfected must be thrown out.

That means trash, and lots of it. Mayor Sylvester Turner has estimated the city will have to clean up 8 million cubic yards of potentially hazardous debris. That is about 800,000 dump trucks worth of trash.

About 150 trucks have been tasked with collecting all the debris, and original estimates said the cleanup for the entire city would take up to three months. On Wednesday, Turner called that timeline “unacceptable,” according to Houston Public Media.

To expedite the process, crews from San Antonio and Austin arrived on Sunday to help, and Houston Solid Waste Management has put out calls for anyone with removal equipment to contact its office. Those unwilling to wait for sanitation crews and who can move debris themselves can also dump trash at sites across the city.

Of course, the longer debris remains outside, the more health risks arise. As days turn into weeks, trash heaps transform into breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The county’s health department has already started ground spraying for the insects and plans to begin aerial sprays in the near future, said Dr. Umair A. Shah, the executive director of Harris County’s public health department.

Any debris that was soaked in floodwater has also been exposed to feces, urine and a cocktail of viral diseases floating in those waters. Without proper protection, injuries as small as cuts, scrapes and abrasions can turn ugly if they become contaminated.

“Anything that has touched floodwaters is potentially dangerous,” Shah said.

Already, hospitals and doctors have reported a slight increase in respiratory disease, gastrointestinal disease and skin infections since Harvey arrived, according to Shah. The executive director has been crisscrossing the county the past week with a caravan of trailers offering vaccinations for people and pets, health and wellness information, mosquito prevention tips and tools, meals and a host of other services. It’s an evolving situation, Shah explained, and the immediate and long-term needs of the community will reflect that as the city moves forward.

Debris stacked outside of homes at the Memorial Drive Townhouses in west Houston.
Debris stacked outside of homes at the Memorial Drive Townhouses in west Houston.
Photo by Joseph Fanelli

Air filled with mold spores from the wet trash sitting idle for days also presents problems. People with severe allergies, asthma or depressed immune systems are more vulnerable to these contaminants, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease expert with McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health and Memorial Hermann Hospital. And kids should avoid all of these sites.

“If your immune system is compromised in any way, you should definitely stay away from these parts,” Ostrosky said.

For those trying to restore their homes, though, there is little time to wait. Rebecca Moran and her parents were one of the first families on their block to return to their home off Memorial between South Gessner and the Beltway in west Houston. Many of the homes in the area fared okay after the initial downpours from Harvey. The Morans' house, which sits in a short inlet just north of Buffalo Bayou, had about three inches of water on Tuesday, September 30, the first time in days that rain from Harvey relaxed.

“Monday, Tuesday we were like, ‘Okay, we’re fine,’” Rebecca said. “Then that Wednesday was the worst.”

By early Wednesday morning, the house had about three feet of water. For three days prior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been releasing water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to prevent the dams from collapsing – a decision that ultimately left much of west Houston underwater for weeks. Airboats like the kind seen skimming across swamps in Louisiana and Florida started arriving on the Morans' street as Mayor Turner ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area.

The Morans returned last Tuesday and, assisted by family and friends from church, began gutting their house, removing the wooden flooring, kitchen countertops and cabinets and about four feet of drywall and insulation. They eventually moved all the trash to a dump site themselves. The property manager for Memorial Drive Townhouses, where they live, had come by to inform the family that the city would not be collecting trash on their street and that he was charging $500 a house to move trash. (The property managers for the townhouses did not answer multiple phone calls on Tuesday.)

On Monday, the Morans had one of the only empty yards. Most of the homes featured the familiar debris piles out front, and in pockets along the street, the smell of rotten food made standing for more than a few seconds unbearable. The subdivisions along Memorial Drive didn’t fare much better. As drivers head west toward the Beltway, they can peek down streets on either side to see more piles of trash littering lawns. Many neighborhoods have posted signs specifying “residents only” in order to prevent looters, with some even using security guards stationed in front of street entrances.

Mayor Sylvester Turner estimated the city may have to remove 8 million cubic yards of trash.
Mayor Sylvester Turner estimated the city may have to remove 8 million cubic yards of trash.
Photo by Joseph Fanelli

In Meyerland, Urbach and his neighbors are also waiting for the trash in front of homes to be removed. The city will pick up anything between the sidewalk and the street, so Urbach hired a company to move the rest of the trash filling his lawn. He said he and his wife likely won’t come back to the home, though. They lived there 38 years, only about two blocks or so from the bayou, and the home never flooded. But this storm has driven Urbach away.

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