Life After Ike

Texas haulers cope with the effects of the hurricane.

They had their plans and stuck to them.

By the time Hurricane Ike reached Galveston, Texas, in mid-September, Houston-based Waste Management had taken the necessary steps to prepare for the disaster. The company began preparing its corporate and operations divisions days in advance.

“Everything went fine,” says Lynn Brown, vice president of corporate communications for Waste Management. “We did everything by the book.” Brown credits the company's emergency plan for allowing the company to protect its employees and business, and to restart service to its customers soon after the hurricane made its way through Texas.

Ike, a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale had sustained low-level winds of at least 96 mph by the time it reached land in Galveston, Texas — one of the areas hardest hit by the hurricane.

On the Thursday before Ike reached land, Waste Management deployed a group of about 20 employees from the corporate headquarters to a company data center in Austin. The “go team,” as Brown refers to the group, was responsible for handling the company's essential corporate functions — payroll, treasury, security, information technology and corporate communications — after the Houston area had been evacuated.

The next step was to prepare the operations side of the company for the hurricane. Equipment had to be moved and preparations had to be made so that operations could resume soon after Ike had passed.

“Every site has a designated place to move equipment to,” says Lisa Doughty, public relations manager of the Houston-area market for Waste Management. “The hardest part was doing it during an evacuation.” Doughty also attributes the emergency plan with allowing the operations side to make fuel arrangements and get fresh dirt for their landfills before the storm.

The city of Houston, which handles its own garbage collection, had a similar plan. Marina Joseph, public information officer for the city's Solid Waste Management Department, says she thinks everything went well considering the severity of the hurricane. “It was unlike any storm we've ever seen,” she says.

Houston officially stopped its collection service on the Friday before Ike reached land. Nearly 100 trucks that are normally kept at the department's southeast service center were moved to the southwest service center because of the threat of flooding. Besides its main office downtown, the department operates four service centers throughout the city, with the other sites located in the northeast and northwest parts of Houston. Most of the department's 550 employees evacuated the city, except for a skeleton crew that stuck around much like the Waste Management “go team.”

By the following Monday morning, the majority of Houston's collection operations had restarted, but curbside recycling remained suspended so that the department could help emergency crews clear storm debris from roadways. Luckily, damages to the department's buildings, facilities and equipment were minimal. All of the service centers, except the southeast one, were open by the time collections resumed. Joseph says the rest of the department's employees also were back at work by Monday morning — some returned despite losing their homes and property. “The dedication of our employees was second to none,” she says.

Ike may have come and gone, but its effects are just beginning to be felt. Brown says she expects to see a waste volume increase of at least 40 to 100 percent during the weeks following the hurricane. Once people are allowed back to their homes, she says, the first thing they usually do is empty their refrigerators and remove water-damaged furniture, carpets and other household items.