Cleaning Up After Mother Nature

Natural disasters demand that waste haulers be at their best when things are at their worst.

Be It Wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods, most areas are at risk of a natural disaster at some point — and just after the devastation occurs, there's the cleanup. Sanitation departments and private waste handlers that are prepared in advance have a major advantage over those that are not.

“Many municipal planners will question the cost incurred in preparing thoroughly for a disaster that may never come,” says Veronica White, director of sanitation for New Orleans, which experienced one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history when Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005. “Citizens and businesses affected by a natural disaster will often lead themselves out of the wilderness. Many are frozen into inaction, others are uncertain of where to start and yet others are waiting for information from their leadership as to what to do.”

White says the failure of a local government to plan for a disaster robs residents of the ability to recover some semblance of their old lives and increases the likelihood they will experience price gouging and delays of relief efforts. “The lessons of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath should stand as a lesson to all local governments that preparation is never a bad thing, and that the costs associated with preparing thoroughly for a disaster and its aftermath are miniscule compared with the costs of poor planning,” she says.

Like New Orleans, a number of cities and waste management organizations have learned the hard way about the importance of preparing in advance for disasters. “As disasters occur throughout the United States, take the time to review the circumstances and mitigation that took place and work on improving it,” says Richard Myles, division manager with the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, adding that the best time to plan is when disaster seems farthest away. “There's no time to rethink and plan when you're in the middle of it.”

Starting From Scratch

The first step in planning for a disaster is determining what types of events a community is likely to confront. “Look at where you're located,” says Mike Cordesman, president and chief operating officer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services, which operates in 21 states. “If you're in a potential earthquake area, plan for that. If your area is prone to tornadoes, plan for that. If your industrial park has you situated next to a chemical plant, plan for that.”

Once the potential risks are identified, waste management companies and municipalities should identify all of the processes and resources necessary for operation, such as information technology and fuel, Cordesman says. After creating a list of needs, they should then establish backup plans for the resources.

For instance, Republic recently made changes to protect its electronic data in the event of an emergency. Not only did the company move its data center to a secure location near the headquarters office, but it also established a mirror image of its Florida data center in Las Vegas. “Now, even if our main data center went down, a user would see only a blip on the screen,” Cordesman says. “He or she would still have access to all the computerized information needed.”

In addition to stabilizing computer systems, Cordesman suggests thinking about radio needs. “Do [the radios] have battery backup?” he says. “And if they operate off cell towers, keep in mind that cell towers can be blown down in high winds.” Recognizing this vulnerability, Republic shifted radio carriage to satellites.

Once a disaster recovery plan is in place, it should be continually tested and refined. Republic recently conducted a tabletop exercise to review readiness and response to a number of possible disasters as well as to isolate any potential trouble spots. “We are never complacent,” Flower says. “We are constantly updating our plans to ensure we are ready. Some events, such as a hurricane, typically provide some advance warning. Tornadoes, earthquakes and fires can strike with little warning. The bottom line is that you never know when a crisis will hit so you need to take time to be prepared.”

The best recovery plans are never complete because nimble waste management professionals are always incorporating new lessons. For instance, when the devastating Northridge earthquake hit southern California in 1994, Los Angeles did not have a debris management plan in place. It was forced to quickly develop one in the wake of the disaster. Fourteen years after the event, city sanitation officials say the most lasting result of the earthquake was an understanding of the need to plan.

“It allowed us the opportunity to reflect back on what we learned; it gave us a chance to debrief and plan for the future,” says Richard Myles, division manager for Los Angeles' Bureau of Sanitation. “For instance, we realized that we needed to diversify our equipment to be able to handle various disasters, and we realized that we needed a more comprehensive plan.”

The Contractor Factor

One important lesson of the Northridge earthquake involved working with contractors. “It became apparent we needed a way of bringing contractors on board,” Myles says. “We were in the process of automating, and the problem with automated trucks is that you don't have the ability to take things that aren't in containers. A lot of [the debris] that was set out could not be set in containers. Some things required skip loaders and heavy equipment, and we had to go piecemeal, advertising for people with that type of equipment to sign a contract with the city and start helping.”

The city established a network of emergency contractors, careful to stipulate in writing that contractors would “set other projects aside and pitch in,” in the case of emergency, Myles says.

When contractors must be hired under desperate circumstances, there is more room for disagreements about payment schedules and fees. Many private waste firms that are contracted by local governments say they've learned to settle contract agreements before disaster strikes. “If disaster rates are not predetermined in your contract [before] disaster strikes and you do the work, there's always some argument about how to get paid,” Cordesman says. “If you can get that out of the way up front, it makes it a lot easier for everyone.”

When negotiating those disaster rates, Cordesman recommends keeping in mind the hidden costs involved in disaster cleanup. “If you have to bring in people from outside the area, you run into incredible costs,” he says. “After a hurricane in 2004, we had to go out and rent motor homes for our employees from across the country to live in because all the hotels were full of evacuees.

“After a hurricane, the amount of flat tires you'll get will increase dramatically, just from nails and debris on the roadways,” Cordesman adds. “Everything will cost more when you're responding to a crisis, and cities just need to understand those increased costs.”

Contractors were crucial in the New Orleans cleanup effort following Hurricane Katrina. The city had a pre-existing contract with Omni Pinnacle LLC, which called for immediate mobilization after the storm to help clear impassable streets. But eventually, other contractors were needed. “Debris placed on medians, debris mixed with garbage, or commingled waste, and curbside debris generated by private businesses were not eligible for reimbursement by [the Federal Emergency Management Association],” White says. “In addition, if a resident placed storm debris in black plastic bags, such as insulation, it could not be disposed of at the C&D landfill. Black plastic bags are banned from C&D landfills in Louisiana.”

Residents frustrated with the resulting slow collection began placing garbage, commingled waste and black plastic bags along neutral grounds, which compounded the problem. The city simply couldn't keep up.

In July 2006, many months into the cleanup effort, the city created a Tactical Trash Force (TTF) to assist the city in removal of commingled waste and other debris related activities. Through the TTF, the city procured the service of another contractor, New Orleans-based JNE Enterprises, to remove curbside debris excluded from FEMA reimbursement. The cleanup effort is ongoing. To date, the TTF has removed more than 3 million cubic yards of commingled waste.

Stake Your Claim

In addition to establishing relationships with contractors and working out the details of those relationships, another common disaster response lesson involves land use. After the Northridge earthquake, Myles says, Los Angeles officials realized they needed to identify areas, such as parks or closed landfills, where debris could be taken for short term storage. “We now have designated areas across the city,” Myles says. “In case of emergency, we can put big items in those places temporarily until we can deal with them.”

New Orleans used a similar approach. “Temporary debris staging areas were set up throughout the city to store, sort and process debris prior to being transported to its final destination,” White says.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., which sustained widespread damage when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne came ashore within three weeks of each other in 2004, such temporary staging areas were crucial to the cleanup effort. Two days after the first hurricane, nine temporary debris collection sites were established. Open for three months, the sites collected and processed approximately 4 million cubic yards of debris, according to a March 2008 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Take Care of Your Own

While debris cleanup is their job, waste management officials say they've also learned that in the event of a crisis, employees come first. After all, no cleanup will be successful without reliable employees to carry it out. After Hurricane Wilma caused significant damage along the Gulf Coast in 2005, resulting in a shortage of gas and food, Republic supplied groceries and gasoline to their employees. “Our trucks run on diesel, but our employees needed gas so they could travel back and forth to work,” Flower says. “At the end of each day, each employee received an amount of gas and a bag of groceries.”

“You've got to make sure your own people are accounted for,” Cordesman says. “Make sure they've got the basics: food, fuel and a place to live. Get that all taken care of, and you'll be amazed by the response you'll get from them. If they know their families are accounted for, they can focus on their work.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based contributing writer.