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Sandy Made Taking Out Garbage In N.Y. More Heroic


While most New Yorkers were trapped in their homes in the aftermath of Sandy, an army of 6,000 had to go right back to work. They're the employees of the New York City Sanitation Department. Kathleen Horan of member station WNYC in New York has more from the Rockaways.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible) convoy to come over here.

KATHLEEN HORAN, BYLINE: Twenty-year veteran sanitation employee Ed Shevlin is taking a brief break in the department's temporary trailer. The silver haired man is in the middle of a 12-hour shift.

ED SHEVLIN: I suppose this is my lunch break. And I'm trying to look up my insurance company to find out when I can get my claim settled and when I can get a rental car so that I can be mobile again. I'm on foot every day after work.

HORAN: As a lifelong resident, Shevlin says he's also been affected by the suffering of his neighbors, especially when he's confronted with the piles of debris from their ruined homes.

SHEVLIN: If the walls could talk, that big pile of garbage would be screaming. Because in that pile of garbage is the floors, the ceilings, the memories; the baptismal pictures, the wedding photos, the graduation photos, and it just looks like a big ol' pile of junk but it has soul and it has spirit.

HORAN: Shevlin thinks the tons of accumulated trash in the hardest hit areas of the city are akin to what was referred to as the pile after 9/11. He says there's so much out there that a regular garbage truck is often filled after only two or three stops. Those trucks are now going to a new dump in the Rockaways.

JIMMY MCGOVERN: Right now, we're at Riis Park at the temporary dump.

HORAN: Deputy Chief Jimmy McGovern says the city quickly realized it didn't have enough dump space. Some of McGovern's own cherished possessions have ended up here. He's currently homeless and is sleeping on a cot at the sanitation garage.

MCGOVERN: I find it easier just being close to work. And then once work is over I can just go upstairs and take a shower and go to bed.

HORAN: Along the eastern site of the dump there's a flurry of activity. Sanitation trucks line up to dump their hauls 24 hours a day. Supervisor Joseph O'Keefe deploys some of those trucks. At 35, he's been working in sanitation for more than a quarter of his life. He says the department has never dealt with anything like this.

JOSEPH O'KEEFE: It's so vast. The damage, it was a wallop for the city. But you know what? Everyone is focused on getting it done. No one's giving up.

HORAN: With so many added hours and the contact with countless snarled piles of sharp and potentially hazardous debris, he says the risk to workers has increased.

O'KEEFE: We do what we got to do. We have a job and a mission to accomplish. We're not looking for a pat on the back. We're looking to help the residents that are affected the most.

HORAN: Sandy has helped to transform the image of taking out the garbage in the city to something more heroic. For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Horan in New York.


SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.