A Gigantic Mess

WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA slammed into New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, the massive storm left the solid waste industry with a cleanup of unprecedented proportions. However, as the late summer turned into fall, haulers and disaster cleanup specialists had jumped headfirst into meeting the challenge.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Katrina left behind more than 2 billion cubic feet (cu. ft.) of debris, including an estimated 1.5 billion cu. ft. in Louisiana and 540 million cu. ft. in Mississippi. The total far exceeds the amount of debris removed from New York City's Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and doesn't include the damage wrought by the less powerful Hurricane Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast three weeks after Katrina.

A partnership consisting of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local governments has taken the lead in assessing the damage from the two hurricanes and coordinating the enormous, multi-state cleanup effort. Many private waste companies have deployed personnel and equipment to the Gulf to assist in the hurricane aftermath, and disaster response firms that have received federal cleanup contracts, such as Pompano Beach, Fla.-based AshBritt Environmental, have subcontracted with solid waste firms.

Sarasota, Fla.-based Onyx North America is one company that has received a subcontract to work in the affected areas. Edouard Dupont-Madinier, senior vice president of the firm, says the cleanup is complex. “One of the biggest challenges is with communication,” he says. “It is critical to be able to effectively communicate in order to stay in control of the rescue and cleanup operations. The second most important challenge is to coordinate logistics and ensure proper staffing levels.”

Other issues facing haulers in a hurricane's aftermath include debris piles that become so entangled that it is difficult for responders to separate solid waste from hazardous waste. Also, mountains of garbage are sent to landfills that are sometimes ill-equipped to handle the volume.

To help those involved in the current cleanup effort and to prepare the industry for future ones, the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Spring, Md., issued a white paper in late September entitled “Hurricane Katrina Disaster Debris Management: Lessons Learned from State and Local Governments.” The report outlines the typical waste management challenges that exist in the aftermath of a natural disaster, including dealing with varied types of waste, establishing segregated waste processing areas (for concrete and asphalt, green waste, metal, etc.), and handling and disposing hazardous waste.

In addition to participating in the cleanup, many firms have had to deal with employees who were directly impacted by the storms. Waste Management (WM), whose Houston headquarters were shuttered briefly as the city evacuated in advance of Rita, helped to find temporary housing for displaced employees along the Gulf. “Some [displaced] employees are returning to work, [and] some are not,” says WM spokeswoman Lynn Brown.

Meanwhile, as the disaster recovery efforts continue to unfold, the financial impact of the storms on the solid waste industry remains unclear. According to a Reuters news report, some financial analysts believe that waste companies will benefit from the cleanup effort, because of a significant spike in debris and new construction waste arriving at landfills. However, an investment analysis by Smith Barney Citigroup, New York, cautions that such a benefit is “usually offset by business disruption and higher disposal costs.”

Regardless, waste companies remain committed to supporting the affected areas over the long haul. “The approach we've taken,” Brown says, “is to follow the lead of the authorities, to have relationships with the various governments and to do the best we can to stay in communication.”