Preparing for Armageddon: Are You Ready for a Disaster?

"Earthquake Flattens Oakland Freeway," "Mudslides Destroy Malibu Homes," "Floodwaters Continue to Rise in Midwest," "Hurricane Batters Florida." Long after these dramatic headlines recede into the distant memories of the newspaper recycling bin, solid waste managers are left with the lingering problem of how to deal with the resulting disaster debris.

Seeking to avoid the traditional approach of burning or landfilling this material, some communities have attempted to divert it through recycling or composting.

The important lesson learned from these efforts is that pre-disaster planning would have assisted the communities in identifying cost-effective debris management options, avoiding mistakes and speeding recovery.

All communities that could be subject to a large disaster should make plans now for how they will manage the resulting debris.

The elements that should be included in a disaster debris management plan include:

* the types of disasters likely to occur;

* the types and amounts of disaster debris likely to be generated;

* the resources available to manage disaster debris;

* the preferred debris management strategy;

* a public information strategy; and

* the funding issues.

Each type of disaster will produce different types of debris. For example, a flood typically would generate a large amount of sandbags, while an earthquake would not.

Different communities are susceptible to different types of disasters. Southern Californians are no strangers to the perils of fires, earthquakes, floods and mudslides, but it is unlikely that they would have to deal with the widespread destruction that can accompany a major hurricane.

Knowing your region's likely disasters will help you evaluate its impact to your solid waste management system. In many communities, the traditional emergency response system (police, fire, medical, emergency shelter, etc.) has projected the types of disasters likely to befall an area.

This existing database can be a good start to predicting the types and amounts of debris to be managed.

In many ways, disaster debris looks like construction and demolition (C&D) debris: wood, concrete, asphalt, yard waste, gypsum wallboard, glass, brick, rock and soil.

However, this debris is often mixed with other materials, including personal belongings, household hazardous wastes, white and brown goods and even disaster-response related materials such as plastic, including sheeting and water containers.

What are Your Resources? An important part of disaster debris planning is to assess the resources that are in place to respond after a disaster.

Checklists should be prepared before a disaster, advises the California Integrated Waste Management Board (Sacramento) in its disaster plan.

These checklists will need to be tailored for each jurisdiction and should be updated at least annually. They should include:

* Emergency personnel "alert lists," including a roster with telephone numbers of staff assigned to the "debris team."

* Descriptions and locations of available equipment and supplies to assist with debris removal and recovery.

* Descriptions of mutual aid agreements with other communities.

* Recycling, reuse and disposal facilities.

* Potential markets and end uses for recovered materials.

* Haulers and processors (and their capacity to handle material).

* C&D contractors and debris processors.

* Area household hazardous and small-quantity generator waste programs.

* Waste exchanges.

* Temporary storage or processing sites.

* Maps and diagrams showing existing waste facilities and storage or processing sites, along with transportation corridors.

* Non-profit and volunteer organizations.

* News media contacts.

Without diversion, disasters can have a major impact on disposal capacity. To minimize these impacts, it is important to establish in advance local policies (or ordinances/ resolutions) for diversion of disaster debris.

This pre-disaster planning effort could help obtain reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). FEMA normally reimburses for "least cost" programs and for disaster diversion programs if they mesh with a jurisdiction's existing policy.

In order to receive reimbursement, FEMA must approve these policies before diversion programs are begun (see "The FEMA Factor" on page 48).

When Disaster Strikes The debris management strategy likely will be carried out in two major phases:

* Immediately after a disaster focusing on removing debris that could cause an immediate threat to public safety (such as highly unstable structures) or that impedes emergency response actions (such as debris from roadways). Because of the critical nature of this phase, diversion efforts are usually limited.

* Continuing for months or even years, focusing on removing debris to assist in a community's recovery. This second phase offers the most opportunity for diversion.

Primary diversion program alternatives include curbside collection or drop-off bins placed throughout the community, or a combination of the two. The pros and cons of the different programs are similar to traditional residential recycling programs: potentially more participation with curbside programs, fewer traffic/ access issues with drop-off programs.

The marketability of recovered materials could be enhanced in both types of programs if source separation is required. Diversion is enhanced if recycling programs already exist for similar materials (such as C&D debris or yard waste).

After a disaster, the focus will be on increasing the capacity of the existing programs to deal with the sudden influx of materials, rather than trying to develop, permit and establish new practices.

Coordination with existing local or nearby jurisdictions' programs is also important. In Alameda County, Calif., disaster debris programs are being designed to complement existing solid waste diversion programs.

For example, generic public information materials addressing disaster debris are being developed now that can be easily modified after a disaster for quick distribution through the county's existing public education program channels.

The county's "soft demolition" program is being expanded to train post-disaster volunteers to maximize the recovery of materials from buildings destroyed by earthquake. The 14 cities in the county are working together to ensure that their disaster debris programs are compatible and to take advantage of the economies of scale.

Steps can be taken to increase readiness once a program strategy is selected. For example, emergency or contingency contracts can be negotiated with haulers; storage, transfer, processing, or disposal facilities; end users or markets; or temporary storage sites to fulfill needs that cannot be met by the public sector.

A list of pre-qualified service providers also could be developed. In all cases, FEMA reimbursement policies should be considered to make sure contract costs can be recovered.

Because a disaster debris management program involves the public's cooperation, its success lies in providing timely, effective information about the program's details. Solid waste managers will need to provide information about when regular refuse collection will resume, as well as how to handle disaster debris.

Because normal communication avenues may be disrupted after a disaster and residents may be displaced from their homes, alternatives for spreading information should be developed.

Some communities are developing a suite of communication techniques including newspaper, television/radio announcements, door hangers, flyers for distribution at emergency shelters and Internet postings.

Getting Funded Costs for disaster response, including debris diversion, typically are not included in local governments' budgets. After a disaster, reserves or discretionary funds are depleted quickly, and these unbudgeted expenses are often accompanied by a decrease in the local tax base.

Therefore, most jurisdictions rely on receiving reimbursement from their state and federal governments following a declared disaster. Receiving timely reimbursement for all eligible costs is an important element of the recovery process.

To maximize the eligible reimbursement, local agencies must follow stringent procedural, recordkeeping and documentation requirements. These requirements affect all aspects of disaster recovery, not just disaster debris cleanup and diversion programs.

Each community is encouraged to pick and train staff members in the disaster assistance process so that they are familiar with the authorities, work eligibility, cost eligibility, application procedures, damage survey reports and other details.

While you can't lessen the amount of debris created by a disaster, you can lessen its affects on your solid waste system with a little preparation and cooperation from your community.

FEMA typically reimburses program costs but does not advance them. This means that local jurisdictions must identify other funds to begin programs until FEMA moneys are available. (Note: FEMA may advance funds for "small projects," which are less than $42,500. Larger project costs are reimbursed.)

Each jurisdiction should identify the funding sources for disaster debris management and compile its policies that support diversion programs over disposal.

FEMA's policy generally has been to reimburse for the "least cost" programs. If debris diversion costs more than landfilling, FEMA typically would reimburse only for disposal, unless a jurisdiction could show that diversion is consistent with an existing policy.

After the Northridge Earthquake in January 1994, the city of Los Angeles received FEMA reimbursement for debris diversion programs, even though it costs more than disposal, because the city's policy (complying with AB 939) emphasized diversion.

Debris clearance to be funded by FEMA must be completed within six months after the major disaster is declared, unless an extension is granted.

It is important to remember that reimbursable costs are allowed only to the date of the last time extension.