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Picking Up the Pieces Part II

December 1, 1999

18 Min Read
Picking Up the Pieces Part II

Christina DiMartino

When a tornado, hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster strikes, community planning is the key to successful and expedient debris removal. Areas that have suffered devastating disasters - whether or not the community was caught unprepared - have learned from their experiences and have since developed thorough, efficient plans.

"Everyone involved is overwhelmed emotionally when these disasters occur," says Homer Perkins, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C. "Even cities with wonderful disaster plans freeze in the aftershock. The emotional stability of a community often depends on how fast it recovers. If people have to look at huge amounts of debris for long, the recovery process can be horribly difficult."

Although it took time, patience and extreme effort, several communities, including Charleston, S.C.; San Francisco; and Homestead, Fla., have rebuilt after devastating natural disasters.

A Hurricane Named Hugo Gregg Varner was the public works director for the city of North Charleston, S.C., when Hurricane Hugo devastated the area Sept. 21, 1989. The city is approximately 60 square miles and had 70,000 residents at the time.

"We removed more than 1 million cubic yards of debris following the hurricane," Varner says.

While Charleston County had an emergency preparedness plan for disasters, many of the area's individual cities - such as North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and the surrounding barrier islands - did not.

"I'd never been through anything like that before and didn't have a clue what to do first," says Varner, whose responsibility at the time was cleaning up debris in North Charleston. "[The county] gave us guidance, particularly with respect to debris removal."

The emergency preparedness director for the county put a copy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA), Washington, D.C., "Guidelines for Debris Removal" in Varner's hands the day after the hurricane.

"I read it thoroughly by candlelight that night because we didn't have electricity," he says. "It was a tremendous help. We were successful in debris removal management, although much of it was seat-of-the-pants, instinctive action."

North Charleston removed debris in three stages, according to Varner. The city began with time and materials contracts, which pay contractors on an hourly basis and reimburse them for materials used. Contractors were hired in teams. This continued for about 10 weeks. The city then went to lump-sum contracts, or flat rate contracts, regardless of time or materials used.

"We divided the city geographically and hired contractors to clean specific areas," he says. Although they made three passes through their assigned areas, debris continued to surface as residents cleaned their properties. "It's not a job that homeowners can do overnight," he continues.

The lump-sum contracts were completed in two months, but there still was debris surfacing, so FEMA provided assistance for some additional removal. The entire debris removal process took six months, cost more than $3 million, and required help from the city and independent haulers - all paid for by FEMA.

At the time of the disaster, Charleston had one landfill and one raw property site, or land owned by the city but not yet developed or permitted for a landfill, Varner says. Burnsites, or sites selected for burning based on their location away from development, were leased and contracted as needed.

Varner says the city changed its disaster plan after Hugo to better reflect the actions that would be necessary in the event of a major disaster.

While he started out unfamiliar with disasters in 1989, Varner learned fast. His management skills and experience have since propelled him into new and highly regarded positions, not only with Charleston County, but also with FEMA. He became an instructor at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md., and was promoted to director of solid waste for Charleston County. "I instruct classes at the center three or four times each year," he says.

Classes, which are held periodically throughout the year for 311/42 days, provide information on disaster criteria and debris removal plans, and are attended by public works departments, as well as private enterprise waste and debris removal companies. A list of available classes can be obtained from FEMA state directors.

The Quake That Shook Frisco The emergency disaster process in California is state mandated. Emergency plans are updated, reviewed and tested continuously for effectiveness.

In addition to health reasons, removing debris is important for a city's economic well-being, says Lucien Canton, director of emergency services for the city of San Francisco.

"It's important to get the city moving in a normal way as soon as possible following a disaster," he says. "The faster people can get back into their routines, the better it is for the community's infrastructure. Everything is dependent on the tax base of a community. If businesses can't reopen and operate, or people leave the city because they can't function, the result is less taxes and the city as a whole suffers."

California exercises the Master Mutual Aid Agreement, which allows cities within a state to share resources. "If we identify a need for aid in San Francisco, we pass it on to the governor's office," Canton says. "They review the resource list to determine cities best suited to come to our aid. If that isn't sufficient to do the job, they then turn to FEMA."

Bill Lee, city administrator, and Paul Horcher, director of the solid waste management program for San Francisco, say debris estimates for major earthquakes range from 500,000 tons for a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the Hayward Fault, to 2.5 million tons for a magnitude 7.7 on the San Andreas Fault.

There are about 100 sites in the San Francisco area that can accommodate disaster debris, including processing, marketing, recycling or salvaging functions, Horcher says. "We project that 85 percent of the debris would be inerts - concrete, rock, construction materials and dirt - including 58 percent concrete and 25 percent dirt," Horcher says. Most material generated by the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake was recycled or put in inert landfills, although exact figures are not available. The earthquake was registered at a 7.1 magnitude on the San Andreas Fault.

Horcher says San Francisco has a citywide emergency operation plan, which was published in 1996 and is updated every two years. "Our disaster debris management team focuses on debris, garbage and hazardous waste removal or diversion and disposal," he says. "We have our own trucks in the city, but we use a private company for residential and commercial waste disposal."

If the city suffers another disaster, San Francisco has sufficient processing capacity for inert materials, an estimated 6.3 billion tons per year, Lee says.

The landfill is located across the Bay Bridge from the city, so if an earthquake renders the bridge unusable, an alternate route that runs south, then back north to the landfill is used, Horscher says. "This is about 100 miles away - a long distance during a disaster." There also is rail and barge transport available for emergencies as a last resort for debris removal.

Lee says the first thing on the emergency agenda for San Francisco after a disaster is handling fires. The next step is cleaning up the streets so emergency vehicles can have clear access. "Because of our high-rises, piles of glass in some areas were estimated at 5 feet," he says. "This destroys tires and makes passage impossible."

The city passed a resolution in May 1999, making cleaning up debris from disasters a priority. "Under California law, we must recycle 50 percent of our waste by the year 2000, unless we obtain an additional four year variance," Lee says. "If we have a major earthquake, much of our available landfill space will quickly be exhausted."

New disaster plans for San Francisco, like in many cities, are based on experience. For example, many of the underground storage tanks in the city were single-lined in the past. With the change in disaster laws, all underground gas tanks at gasoline stations now are double-lined.

"During the 1989 earthquake, we found many of the old tanks leaking," Lee says. Also, the fact that the city and its infrastructure are old - established in the early 1800s - can cause disaster problems. Much of the city is built on Franciscan rock, which contains asbestos. Additionally, many old gas lines were closed but not purged. In the early 1800s, the city imported a lot of coal from Australia, which it burned for natural gas, the result of which still is felt today, Lee says.

"The remains of the coal are a dark-pitched residue stored in underground tanks," he says. "During an earthquake, a portion of all this material surfaces to street level and must be removed."

The city is working to eliminate known sites, but many of the sites aren't known, at least until a major disaster causes a hazardous element to surface, Lee continues.

Recycling disaster debris includes using materials, such as concrete, to build roads, support hills and slopes, and to create new landfills and housing project foundations. "Most housing materials, such as lumber, are recycled into new housing," Lee says. "This creates a secondary market that helps the economy."

There also is a program that helps preserve the Victorian trimwork and detail of San Francisco architecture, Lee says. "The lead paint must be removed from the material, then it is given to a recycler or rebuilder," he says. "These parts are difficult to come by and impossible to replace. This helps the economy by creating jobs, and preserves the historic aspects of the city."

Homestead's Horror "Small, but intense," is how Curt Ivy, assistant city manager for the city of Homestead, Fla., describes Hurricane Andrew, the hurricane that leveled a majority of the city as well as other south Florida areas.

"We hadn't been hit by anything near this intensity for more than 30 years," Ivy says. "If you tell people that a Category 4 [on the Saffir-Simpson scale] or small Category 5 hurricane with approximate wind speeds of 140 mph is headed their way, it is very difficult for them to comprehend what this might mean."

Relating the wind speed to damage is even more difficult, he continues. "We're very sensitive to wind velocity, high-pressure systems and everything else related to weather today because of our experience. Andrew was predicted to move north of us, but the high pressure system above aimed it directly toward us. We had that final realization the day it hit that it wasn't going to move north, but didn't know what it meant in terms of damage."

Ivy relates the anticipation to the "Jaws" theme song. "It was a grueling wait for everyone here, with each moment intensifying tension levels," he says. "Our city was between 80 percent and 85 percent destroyed. We had debris piles all over the place, and for a long time we just hauled it from one location to another."

Mike Gavano, director of solid waste for the City of Homestead, says prior to Hurricane Andrew the city spoke with private contractors and had tentative agreements arranged in case of a disaster. "Unfortunately, those contractors were located in and around the city. They suffered the same damage as everyone else so they couldn't respond, forcing us to go outside the city for aid."

Homestead learned from that experience. "We now have agreements with land clearing contractors in other parts of the state, up to 100 miles away, for disaster cleanup," Gavano says. "These are standing contracts that assure us of their immediate attention."

Gavano says the disaster plan requires activation of one of several actions, depending on the severity of the disaster.

"Our mayor first calls a localized city emergency, then the state makes the proclamation, and finally, FEMA kicks in on order from the federal government," he says. "USACE didn't do any debris collection following the hurricane, but they did handle disposal. Our collectors delivered the debris to a central location in Homestead, then USACE took over."

More than 1 million cubic yards of debris was removed from the city following the disaster, according to Gavano. "We used our own forces [city trucks and employees] and three contractors from other counties for the first 13 days."

After that, Homestead accepted help from more than 500 public works professionals from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. "The aid ultimately thinned, so we again hired area private contractors," he says. "They worked from November through the following August, with a few breaks in between."

Gavano says that the majority of the hurricane debris was removed within 30 days following the disaster. But a large amount of the total 1 million cubic yards continued to surface because of the repairing and rebuilding that followed for months afterward.

Areas throughout the county and city were proclaimed emergency dump sites for debris. The waste was moved as quickly as possible from these areas. Some have referred to the huge volume of rubble resulting from Andrew as 30 years of debris generated in one day.

During the cleanup period, the city continued its normal garbage service. "We resumed trash collection within 36 hours of the hurricane," he says. "Staying environmentally sound during the process was a priority for the city, so we made sure no municipal solid waste (MSW) went to the single, albeit enormous, debris landfill." For MSW, the city uses Dade County's landfill.

Gavano says the USACE, which handled disposal, separated the metals from the other debris, and incinerated burnable materials in forced air burners. "We burned for about a month, and the remainder of the debris was landfilled."

One of the biggest challenges for the city was maintaining a strong infrastructure, he says.

"Removing debris increases the risk of breaking sidewalks, meter boxes, fire hydrants, storm drain systems and other things that are imperative for people to live. If debris isn't removed properly, even more damage is the result."

When asked beforehand how he felt about the strong hurricane season predicted for 1999, Gavano said, "We feel our disaster plan is a little better organized than it was eight years ago. Our standing contracts with companies outside the city are in place. We have contracts for tire repair and many other aspects we didn't know we'd need with Andrew. The first thing I'd do today is contact the contractors and make sure they're prepared to move fast. There isn't much we can do prior to a storm except in-house."

He also said he would put trash and garbage crews on alert, and they'd be allotted time to secure their own homes and see to their families' safety. "We work until winds reach 40 mph, then we shut our operation down," he said. "From that point we maintain one crew and necessary equipment. The crew makes sure our own facility is in order and secured.

"We now have the ability to run our operations off generators," he continued. "With Andrew, we were without power for 72 hours. We had small generators, but not enough power to keep computers and other functions operating. Today, we can function without interruption."

Homestead now has its own electric company, so the city can set its own priorities regarding where power must be provided.

"We also have better stock today," Gavano adds. "We have a 40-foot container filled with chain saws, repair kits and all the other materials we couldn't find after Andrew. This material also is available to assist if another Florida city is hit by a hurricane. After having been through the experience, I know how important it is for communities to help each other."

Although no one wishes for a natural disaster to occur, someone needs to remove the debris if it does, and it may as well be you. How can you become involved in disaster cleanup? First, you must understand how the federal system for disaster relief works.

When the president proclaims an area a natural disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Washington, D.C., immediately moves into action, deploying up to 26 other agencies that will assume responsibility for one or more emergency actions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C., one of the agencies, oversees debris removal. It contracts with local companies, including solid waste haulers, and sometimes recruits haulers from other areas when debris amounts are too large for the local forces.

"We act as a contracting agency," says Homer Perkins, USACE public affairs specialist. "The work is done primarily by local contractors, but under our authority."

Local contractors and communities play a vital role in debris removal, Perkins says. "Normally the city will clean up as much as possible, then USACE will remove and dispose of it."

USACE has open-ended contracts with debris removal companies throughout the country, whereby the haulers agree to respond expediently if a disaster occurs and their services are needed. Contracts are reviewed annually to account for companies that go out of business or change their focus, and to accommodate other companies that would like to submit bids.

"Disasters mean a lot of work in a very short period of time for these contractors," Perkins says. "Even though they don't want a disaster to happen, it does mean revenue."

Some disasters, such as hurricanes, offer some warning. "The area is watched carefully from the time the hurricane becomes a possibility until it has passed," Perkins says. "USACE can pre-prepare and at least alert teams of the [hurricane] potential. In the case of tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, however, the disaster hits so suddenly that planning time is impossible."

Perkins says most states hold conferences and training sessions annually with their contractors to provide constant disaster plan refreshers. These are held at USACE's state offices.

The biggest concern regarding debris removal is the potential health hazard. "When people's houses are destroyed, there isn't just clean debris involved," Perkins says. "There is waste, food and everything else people use and eliminate on a daily basis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., normally handles the majority of hazardous waste, but all waste becomes hazardous if it sits long enough."

The nametags that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Washington, D.C., handed out at its recent Regional Operations and Planning Conference read, "Commitment to Readiness."

"It's a mantra we all must keep in mind," says Scott Saunders, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C. The joint meeting between USACE and FEMA was held in Gettysburg, Pa., June 1-4, 1999, to cover advancements in disaster action planning and preparation for the 1999 hurricane season, which officially began June 1. Emergency members from both agencies attended the second annual workshop, which included discussions on issues and problems that developed during the 1998 hurricane season and a review of USACE's responsibilities.

"Disaster response never goes completely smoothly," Saunders says. "It can't because each disaster is unique and there is no way to plan for the 'perfect' one."

From the meeting, FEMA prepared an updated Federal Response Plan (FRP), which involved the 26 federal response team agencies that are deployed during an emergency and dictates how they would respond.

"This year's workshop was about readiness," he says. "We discussed how to posture ourselves to move into action immediately, but with a precise plan."

Throughout the hurricane season, provided that USACE was not tied up with disaster action, the group held more meetings to assess how the season progressed and determine whether additional improvements were needed.

Saunders acknowledges that because of El Nino and La Nina, the National Hurricane Bureau, Washington, D.C., predicted a bad hurricane season for 1999. But he says no one could attempt to predict how many hurricanes would develop or where they would make landfall.

When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook San Francisco, it was right on the heels of Hurricane Hugo's devastation in Charleston, S.C. More than 300 people had been deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Washington, D.C., to South Carolina - meaning many of its major human resources were extremely busy. But emergency backup plans enabled the agency to deploy more than 250 people to San Francisco overnight.

That chain of disasters raised a serious question. What would happen if several disasters occurred at the same time? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C., says that although it hasn't happened in the past, it certainly could, especially when weather conditions like El Nino and La Nina are active.

For starters, USACE says many private debris disposal companies would be put to work, according to Homer Perkins, USACE public affairs specialist.

Other agencies also may relax laws during a major disaster. Jim March, team leader for system's analysis with the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), Washington, D.C., says private and public haulers don't want to risk their own or others' safety by hauling loads that exceed weight limitations.

"However, in emergency situations where moving gross amounts of debris is necessary for health reasons, it would likely be a matter of doing what needs to be done to insure public safety," he says. "Our experience with disaster situations is that those in control have been properly and thoroughly trained. They maintain sound minds and make competent decisions under extreme duress. If called on, we would deploy people to help, but we have a tremendous amount of faith in FEMA and the agencies they deploy."

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