It's always a melancholy Mardi Gras moment. The last float of a parade passes, the sound of the drums and sirens fades into the distance. The crowd, laden with blinking beads and baubles, migrates away en masse. The route is left adrift in forlorn, fluttering litter.
This is when the New Orleans Sanitation Department's cleanup battalion makes its move. A street washer truck leads the charge, dousing the trashy pavement with lemony suds. Workers in yellow vests rake the refuse from the gutters and off the neutral grounds.
Roaring front-end loaders and miniature bulldozers plow into the piles like hungry dinosaurs. Street sweeper trucks gobble up more of the left overs. Patrols of rakers follow, capturing the scattered plastic cups and bead wrappers left behind. Dump trucks carry it all away.
It's a small miracle. By the time the Babylon, Chaos, and Muses parades reached their downtown terminus on Thursday night (February 23), where they'd begun on Napoleon Avenue was glistening clean.
The city's Sanitation Department Director Cynthia Sylvain-Lear says that her goal is "to make sure that when people wake up the next morning, it doesn't look like there was a parade the night before."
In fact, she said crew chases immediately after parades to attempt to clean up the route within three hours. With the wind at their backs, the cleanup crew (Note: for the purposes of this story, we're going to call it a cleanup krewe from here on out), can erase a parade aftermath in a hour after the procession passes, Sylvain-Lear said with justifyable pride.
"When they roll, we roll," she said, we start picking up litter. We want to catch everything before it flies into the neighborhood."
It's a big operation. Part of the reason, the city's cleanup krewe is able to move so quickly is that there are actually three krewes on the Uptown route. One jumps in from the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Another awaits at Louisiana Avenue and St. Charles Avenue. A third pours in at Clio Street and St. Charles (that's where the video was shot).
At the beginning of the parading season, Sylvain-Lear said, she employs about 200 workers. When New Orleans' longest, most lavish parade, Endymion, rolls in Mid-City on Saturday (February 25), she'll have over 600 trash eradicators on the job.
Some of her krewe comes from temporary employment agencies, the city's job force development agency (Job 1), and the Black Men of Labor benevolent society, Sylvain-Lear said.
Plus there are seasonal crossovers from other city agencies, such as Parks and Parkways, Public Works, Mosquito and Termite Control, and the French Market Corporation.
"We actually start in November and December, sending out emails to all the city departments, asking people 'Do you want to work with us during Mardi Gras?'"
The city reports that in 2016 Sylvain-Lear's team removed 940 tons of debris. Imagine.
Here are a few fun facts that Sylvain-Lear shared as she led a tour of cleanup equipment. And some requests.
Street washer trucks carry 4000 gallons of water that has to be refilled from fire hydrants.
Those cute three-wheeled street sweepers are called Pelicans. They have twin steering wheels and can be driven from the right side or the left. They use red bristles during Mardi Gras, for trash removal. Sometimes you have to get down there and cut the strands of beads out of the bristles.
It helps if picnickers and partiers bag their own trash along the route. If you leave your ladders and chairs behind for the next parade, clean up around them, so Sylvain-Lear's krewe doesn't have to. Don't leave your old couch out there for somebody else to deal with. Don't use glass; it's dangerous. Don't leave hot barbecue coals behind; it's dangerous. Don't try to cross the street in between the street cleaning equipment; it's dangerous. Clean up after your pets; it's gross.