Emergency Preparedness and Response

Dealing with Debris: Do You Want It Done Quickly, Cheaply, or Cleanly?

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana Gulf coast, the state had to figure out what to do with more than 38 million cubic yards of debris—including a quarter of a million trashed refrigerators full of rotting food and environmentally toxic refrigerant. And that was just refrigerators; debris that must be disposed of in the wake of a disaster includes many materials whose disposal is heavily regulated under normal circumstances. One of the solutions that state and federal regulators resorted to then was to issue waivers suspending certain environmental regulations, including rules restricting disposal of certain hazardous materials and requirements for siting and permitting new landfills.

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Hurricane Harvey is ultimately expected to generate around 8 million cubic yards of storm debris in Houston alone; in Florida, Miami-Dade County expects to clear away more than 4 million cubic yards of debris left by Hurricane Irma. What happens to all of that debris, where it goes, how it must be sorted and dealt with are questions with no settled answers.

Pick Two: Quickly, Cheaply, or Cleanly?

When it comes to clearing away disaster debris, everyone wants it done quickly. The real recovery doesn’t begin, after all, until the demolition is complete and the debris is cleared away. But even under ideal conditions, it’s difficult to sort and properly dispose of construction and demolition debris quickly, cheaply, and cleanly—and disasters hardly create ideal conditions.

The greatest barrier to disposing of wastes cleanly is the necessity of sorting wastes by category. To facilitate cleanup, state and local governments often waive sorting and disposal rules. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, sorting requirements were largely waived, and in the wake of the Texas floods, Governor Greg Abbott temporarily suspended 19 environmental rules in order to facilitate cleanup. But what’s cheaper in the short term isn’t necessarily cost-effective in the long run: Allowing hazardous wastes to be disposed in an improperly sited and permitted landfill after Hurricane Katrina lead to long-term environmental problems in a nearby community and an expensive additional cleanup.

The greatest barrier to disposing of wastes cheaply may be a lack of manpower, especially after geographically widespread disasters. Some northern Florida municipalities discovered in the wake of Hurricane Irma that they could not find contractors to clear away debris. Their existing contractors, who normally rely on subcontractors themselves, discovered that their subcontractors were leaving them high and dry for better-paying jobs in southern Florida. You may also discover, in the wake of a disaster, that contractors you could ordinarily rely on to help with repairs are too busy to get to your facility in a timely manner or that you are being outbid by competitors. This can affect not only your own efforts but also the efforts of others that you need in order to begin recovery—like the clearing of streets and power lines.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) best practices for disaster debris management—and the problems with implementing them.