Nature's role in the great flood of 1993 has ended, but for the people in the Midwest, the real drama is just beginning. As the water recedes, it reveals a scene of devastation that represents the worst nightmare of most residents, and most waste managers as well.
Aside from the millions of acres of flooded land and the billions of dollars in crop and property damage, the flood left an overwhelming quantity of waterlogged, scattered debris, including appliances, hazardous containers and the remains of wrecked homes. This material brings a second flood - the flood of waste - to the doorsteps of environmental officials.
Waste managers throughout the flood area have dealt with this rising tide of garbage with a variety of strategies that provide valuable lessons in disaster management. But they all agree that there are no easy solutions. "Invest in Maalox," advises David Shore, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "It is a tremendous amount of work to recover, and it's not easy even if you were at the head of the curve [in preparedness]. You're still never ahead of the game."
Operations Headaches Most landfill sites escaped flooding, though there were some, including a number of Superfund sites, that were affected. One of the most common problems was water creating access problems on a number of roads.
For the Des Moines Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, these conditions were the biggest challenge to cleanup. The volume of traffic coming to the agency's landfill ranged up to three times its normal levels, and the wet conditions at the site didn't help matters.
During the three weeks after the flooding, the agency received as many as 3,400 tons per day of flood material alone from the 20 governmental entities that comprise its membership. The normal waste stream at the landfill is 1,100 tons per day.
To manage the deluge of waste, the agency extended landfill hours and expedited special waste processing. The addition of weekend hours at the landfill was particularly important to homeowners, who did the bulk of their cleanup on Saturdays and Sundays, according to Teree Caldwell Johnson, director of the agency.
Collection, which is performed by the municipal members of the agency, was also accelerated. Member municipalities hired private contractors to gather as much debris as possible during the initial influx of material. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) helped businesses to organize cooperative waste disposal programs that could be quickly serviced by contractors.
As haulers brought in flood waste to the landfill, they signed a form specifying the waste's source. Under an honor system, they paid only for regular waste because the agency waived all tipping fees for flood debris. The fee waiver was extended to all member municipalities and included business and residential wastes and material from private vehicles. The fee waivers began on July 16, six days after the flood struck, and the agency planned to continue the courtesy through September.
In addition, the state of Iowa waived its $4.25 per ton surcharge at landfills for flood waste, according to Scott Cahail, an environmental specialist with the Iowa DNR.
Johnson said that as of August 14, her agency had waived about $425,000 in tipping fees. By the end of the cleanup, she expects that total to reach $500,000 or more. While this is a large sum, Johnson said it did not present lost revenue for the agency. "It's not income that we budgeted for, so it won't hurt our bottom line. It just means lost air space."
Shredding Debris To conserve landfill space, a number of municipalities and states are leasing shredders. The machines have reduced the volume of flood debris by 50 to 80 percent.
In St. Louis County, Mo., a shredder is processing waste from nearly 100 heavily damaged homes. The debris is brought to a central site, where it is sorted. Metal and white goods are pulled out for recycling, household hazardous waste is separated for proper disposal and larger debris such as logs are removed for burning. The remainder of the material is shredded.
The biggest problem in the clean-up has been flat tires on the collection trucks that bring waste to the shredder, according to Terry Mitchell, district maintenance highway superintendent for St. Louis County. The county highway department is picking up flood debris at the curbside and carting it to the shredding site.
"There is so much material - glass, nails and other debris - on the street, we keep getting flat tires," said Mitchell. "We are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep the right of ways clear."
Bob Jones, bureau chief of operations for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), is facing similar challenges in his state.
IDOT is leasing a shredder which is proceeding from city to city to process the flood debris. At each stop, a debris collection site is established in the community. Local haulers, residents, etc., bring their debris to the site for shredding. IDOT then uses its trucks to haul the waste to the landfill.
Some IDOT trucks are being used for collection, said Jones, but his agency is encouraging communities to pick up most the debris themselves.
According to Jones, most materials are shredding easily, and the wet nature of the waste has not caused problems with the machinery. "Bed springs sometimes cause problems, but practically everything can be processed. The shredder even handled two bowling balls."
Sand Bag Problems The overwhelming quantity of the sand bags present a unique challenge. In Illinois alone, there are more than 10 million bags, according to Jones.
"Some will be slit open. The bag will be disposed and the sand will be left. Others will be dumped in landfills," he said.
In St. Louis County, the sandbags were checked for contamination and have been declared suitable for landfill disposal, said White.
Similarly, the Missouri DNR determined sandbags are safe for disposal. Shore said the bags can be buried under one foot of cover or landfilled. The DNR has recommended that plastic bags be separated before the sand is disposed, but because much of the plastic is breaking down quickly, officials are still concerned with their disposal. The burlap bags decompose rapidly and can be disposed anywhere, Shore said.
Ron McCutcheon of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that some sand may be recycled in building materials.
But overall, very little of the flood debris can be recycled, said most officials. The exceptions seem to be plastic jugs and white goods.
According to Cahail, the quantity of plastic jugs collected by Des Moines recyclers has skyrocketed as city residents turn in thousands of empty water containers. The Iowa DNR has said that other cities where water was cut off also will try to recycle the tens of thousands of plastic jugs distributed to residents.
The EPA has encouraged states and municipalities to separatethe white goods for recycling.
"Instead of shredding white goods, we are setting them aside at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency collects them and sends them to a recycling plant," said Jones. Freon from refrigerators also is recycled.
In St. Louis County, white goods are separated at the shredding site and sent to salvage companies. And in Missouri, the state DNR is trying to work with the EPA to recover freon and remove capacitors from white goods so they can be turned over to scrap dealers.
Many recycling programs in the Midwest have been suspended to facilitate cleanup efforts. For example, the Missouri DNR has suspended the state ban on yard waste at landfills. "Much of the flood debris classifies as yard waste, and we wanted to make it easier for people to dispose of it," said Shore. In addition, many of the state's compost facilities were in the flood plain and a number may be permanently incapacitated. Currently, there simply isn't a place to process separated yard waste.
Handling Hazwastes The flood waters swept away hazardous wastes from businesses and homes throughout the Midwest, and cleanup of these scattered materials is a priority for state and federal officials. In addition, residents are throwing out hazardous debris that cannot be landfilled.
Cahail said the Iowa DNR worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the EPA to organize household hazardous wastes collection days at 12 sites throughout the state. Officials collected paints, pesticides, cleaners, batteries and auto products, among other materials. Similar collection programs have been held in other states.
Mary Breitenbach, an EPA spokes-person, says orphan drums and propane tanks are another hazard created by the flood. She said the EPA is pulling hazardous waste containers into flat, safe areas, where they are sorted, sampled and categorized. When enough waste is stockpiled, it is landfilled, incinerated or recycled.
When possible, the propane tank vendors are identified. "Most vendors are happy to come take them back, since the tanks are worth a significant amount of money," claimed Breitenbach.
In a three-week period after the flood, more than 1,000 tanks and drums were recovered, as well as hundreds of propane tanks and countless small containers.
The Missouri DNR also is working with the EPA to recover containers. More than 2,600 drums have been recovered in the state, plus more than 3,600 smaller containers. "We are finding 10 times the amount of drums that we estimated," said Shore. "We think a number of them migrated from other states."
The DNR was working to establish household hazardous wastes collection sites at press time. More than 20 Missouri counties had expressed interest in participating, said Shore.
Disaster Planning The cleanup experience in the Midwest offers a number of lessons in disaster preparedness:
* Be proactive, not reactive. While no one wants a natural disaster to occur, it's best to anticipate the worst and develop a plan of action. "It can save you a lot of aggravation later," said White.
White's emergency management division in St. Louis County had already developed working relationships with area hospitals, the Red Cross and other agencies when the flood waters swept in. "We knew their services, what they could offer and who we should contact," noted White. "That really sped things up for us."
His county was prepared for disaster this time around, but that was not the case in 1976, when an airplane crashed in the area. Multiple mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs had jurisdiction over the disaster site, resulting in confused and chaotic handling of the situation.
"Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to make you see these problems," said White. But fortunately, the county learned from the experience and established the emergency management agency to coordinate efforts of the different jurisdictions.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) is examining the ways to improve Illinois management practices. IEMA has created the Interagency Hazard Mitigation Team to look at the flood areas and address disaster preparedness, according to Jones.
* Keep good records of your costs. Johnson said many cleanup costs are recoverable from FEMA, but reimbursement is contingent upon meticulous records.
* Evaluate your capabilities. Know what staffing and equipment resources you have, as well as their limitations. It is important not to stress your resources with overwork. On the other hand, it may not be financially possible to contract for additional services. Be sure to plan with your capacities - and budget - in mind.