When Disaster Strikes

When Disaster Strikes

Managing the debris caused by events such as hurricanes and tornados requires thorough preparation.

Unfortunately, at some point, almost every part of the country is going to be affected by some type of natural disaster, be it a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or similar large-scale event. When such events take place, private haulers and public sanitation departments are needed to collect and dispose of the debris left behind. Developing a sound operational plan for such circumstances well ahead of time is crucial.

Phoenix-based Republic Services' South Florida division, which operates in an area prone to hurricanes, has a leadership team that reviews and refines the division's disaster response plans throughout the year. The team conducts regular tabletop drills, and has conducted a disaster emergency preparedness workshop for municipalities and unincorporated areas in Broward, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

"The presentation reviewed the clean-up performance in past storms, critiqued what was done well and poorly, and recommended improvements," says Damon Stinson, Republic Services' director of municipal affairs in the South Florida area. "We also clarified the roles of service providers and municipalities."

One key question about roles, for instance, asks who manages storm debris after a hurricane? "Of course, we would manage municipal solid waste," Stinson says. "But who would mange storm debris?"

In some cases, municipal contracts require Republic Services to manage the storm debris. Republic might do the work or may contract directly with a third party. In other cases, a municipality might contract with a third party. It all depends on plans and preparations made ahead of time.

As a hurricane approaches, the division's leadership team meets to review the responsibilities assigned to each team member and to set the plan in motion. "My responsibility is to keep the municipalities apprised of our status," Stinson says. "The general manager manages our operations, assessing problems and making decisions about how to move forward. The maintenance manager procures additional fuel, sources for fuel, trucks and heavy equipment, and makes sure the office's power generator is in working order."

Disasters often cause power outages that shut down computer systems. A member of the leadership team makes sure that route sheets for the drivers are printed out on paper before an outage makes that impossible.

In meetings with drivers, leadership team members review safety procedures for operating in the aftermath of a storm. "We remind them that power outages or storm damage often affects traffic signals, making it important to take extra care at intersections," Stinson says. "We also note that line of sight changes after a storm. There are large piles of debris, and pedestrians can suddenly appear from behind them. Take extra care driving."

Further instructions caution everyone to get as much sleep as possible before the storm. Clean up and recovery work can be intense and exhausting. Employees also are given time off to board up windows and otherwise prepare their homes.

Priority accounts such as hospitals, grocery stores and facilities used to shelter people driven out of their homes receive service shortly before the storm to ensure that trash doesn't interfere with their operations.

Finally, the team informs municipal and commercial customers and the press when the last waste pick up will occur before the storm arrives. At the same time, the division reminds residents and commercial accounts to keep storm debris and municipal solid waste separate.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides federal funds to clean up storm debris. Among the regulations controlling that money is the requirement that solid waste not be collected with storm debris. If the two get mixed, FEMA won't authorize payment.

As the storm arrives, Republic Services shuts down and sends everyone home. Nothing will happen with solid waste until after the storm.

The Third Party

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was still raging when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) awarded Pompano Beach, Fla.-based AshBritt Environmental a contract to collect and dispose of storm debris in 15 jurisdictions spanning about 7,600 square miles in Mississippi.

AshBritt specializes in disaster clean-up and might even be considered a role model for waste collection firms and municipal public works operations that need to firm up their disaster response preparations. The firm often works in partnership with waste companies that have municipal or county contracts calling for disaster response services.

"We plan and train for this work every day," says AshBritt President Randy Perkins. "When we aren't responding to a disaster, we're preparing to respond by forming relationships with vendors to ensure we have access to trucks, heavy equipment and furnished office space with computers and communications equipment. We are also making arrangements to procure power generation equipment, ice, water, temporary housing, toilets, showers and everything else communities need following a disaster."

Hours after receiving the USACE award, AshBritt arrived on the Mississippi coast and set to work. Within days, employees were directing the construction of what eventually became 59 temporary debris transfer sites ranging in size from 10 to 150 acres. The firm hired subcontractors to clear the sites and build roads in the surrounding area for the truck traffic that would be constant for months.

According to Perkins, the sites resemble construction and demolition debris recycling facilities. They include containment areas for hazardous wastes and sorting areas where arriving concrete, metal, plastic, paper, green waste and other debris are separated. Other areas crush and bale white goods.

During the 12 months following Katrina, AshBritt employed and managed more than 1,230 subcontractors who:

  • hauled more than 650,000 loads of debris utilizing 12,500 hauling vehicles.

  • removed and processed more than 21 million cubic yards of debris.

  • removed more than 1,900 tons of putrefied food.

  • removed and hauled 24,045 stumps, 180,940 trees and 332,079 tree limbs.

  • demolished and disposed of more than 3,500 unsafe structures such as houses, sheds and barns.

  • returned all 59 temporary transfer sites to their original condition. Since the sites were constructed on empty fields, this work entailed replanting trees, shrubs and other vegetation.

Some mistakes during disaster clean-up are inevitable, but through thorough preparation and a constant review of operational plans, both AshBritt and Republic Services are equipped to perform well in a chaotic situation.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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Terrorism Preparation

The aftermath of a major hurricane, earthquake or other disaster can resemble the aftermath of a major terrorist attack. Similarly, the work of cleaning up after a terrorist attack may involve the same kinds of waste management organizations.

According to Will Flower, vice president of communications with Phoenix-based Republic Services, company personnel regularly attend seminars offered by the federal government that focus on the clean-up after a terrorist attack. "[Federal officials] ask smart questions about restoring services, and they want to know what our needs will be under adverse conditions," he says.

Last October, for instance, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran three workshops designed to evaluate the "state of preparedness of disposal of anthrax contaminated materials."

The National Lab and EPA invited waste facility owners, haulers and associations to one of the seminars. Republic's Rich Thompson, the company's corporate director of compliance, attended. Thompson's responsibilities include compliance with environmental regulations.

The workshops aimed to enhance the ability of EPA to recover and restore operations after an anthrax attack. The seminar established the need for each hauler to have a written plan that could be implemented in the event of an attack. The plan would specify tested cleanup procedures, personal protective equipment, adequate disposal sites and appropriate methods for handling and disposing of contaminated waste.