Planning for post-hurricane pickup
Although America’s coasts comprise 26 percent of the nation’s land area, they are home to more than 54 percent of its population. According to a State of the Coast bulletin issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that population is increasing by 3,600 people each day. That means that, between now and 2015, 27 million more people will live in areas known for naturally occurring hazards like hurricanes.
That population increase is responsible for the rise in disaster losses whenever a natural hazard hits the country’s coasts. In fact, the average cost of a single major coastal disaster now hovers around $500 million.
Hurricanes, which are responsible for much of that loss, are no more severe than they used to be (although some scientists claim they are more frequent). But increasing populations mean that, when one does strike, there is significantly more to lose. Floyd, the most destructive storm
of 1999, damaged 43,000 homes throughout North Carolina and Virginia and generated more than $39 million in federal disaster assistance in those two states. In North Carolina alone, Floyd forced the allocation of more than $43 million toward debris removal, emergency safety measures and infrastructure repair.
A single hurricane can create as much as five years’ worth of debris over a two- or three-day span. A survey of 40 Atlantic and Gulf communities conducted at the end of the 1998 hurricane season found that recent storms generated as much as 6.6 million cubic yards of debris — an amount equivalent to the loads carried by 660,000 large tandem-wheel dump trucks. For a city of about 100,000 residents, such as Clearwater, Fla., or Newport News, Va., 1 million cubic yards equals the total amount of waste deposited in the city landfill over a five-year span.
Consequently, it makes sense that communities in vulnerable areas keep handy a comprehensive plan that details how they will handle the problem. But, despite the fact that 43 percent of coastal localities experienced more than $1 million in storm damage within the last five years, almost as many — 47 percent — lacked a written plan for dealing with the debris left by a natural disaster.
“It’s really not surprising,” says Bob Lay, emergency management director for Brevard County, Fla., which was left with 100,000 cubic yards of trash to clean up after Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, and 70,000 cubic yards after Hurricane Irene in October. “Most localities are not very far-sighted.”
Brevard, the county that includes Cape Canaveral, does have a plan. But Jamie Wiest, public works director for Franklin, Va., says his community does not. However, having suffered the sting of Hurricane Floyd last fall, it soon will, he says.
A debris-management plan presents numerous advantages, including: * a simpler recovery process; * immediate debris removal — with enough equipment to do the job; * minimal social disruption and economic impact; * continued job performance by regular municipal employees (for example, police officers do not receive landfill duties); * compliance with environmental statutes; * local control of the process; * lower costs; and * enhanced ability for the locality to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Complacency had prevailed in Franklin because, prior to Floyd, the only flood in memory there had occurred in August 1940. Floyd inundated downtown Franklin with water from the Nottoway River, which rose 26.5 feet above normal — 3 or 4 feet higher than the 1940s level. Aside from the lives it traumatized, the storm left 15,000 tons of debris that had to be hauled to the regional landfill in neighboring Suffolk, about 20 miles east. That volume was more than the city would have produced in a normal year, Wiest says.
George Roarty, a member of the task force in charge of the city’s cleanup, notes that the devastation was particularly significant because it was concentrated in the historic downtown area, where more than 180 businesses were located. The work required sifting through, and discarding, merchandise and stripping buildings down to their frames.
“We recycled a lot,” Roarty says. “Buildings that had to be torn down amounted to 10,000 tons of crushed concrete that we’ll be able to use to pave alleys and parking lots.” (That amount of concrete could pave
2 miles of two-lane road.) The problem is where the city can store the crushed concrete in the meantime, he notes. Lacking a debris-management plan, Franklin and surrounding Southampton County relied on the Virginia Department of Emergency Services, the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assist with recovery.
Although Wiest praises the Corps of Engineers for its efficiency and thoroughness during the cleanup, he adds, “We could have done it quicker and smoother if we’d had a debris-management plan in place. Because we had not had anything so devastating in so many years, a plan was never an issue.”
In many cases, a disaster will prompt local officials to at least think about future occurrences. In fact, one survey of coastal communities indicated such. It found that: * the vast majority of communities (87 percent) anticipate using public and private forces to manage the next hurricane’s debris; * 55 percent of municipalities would use their public landfills for storm debris; 32 percent would use public and private landfills; and 13 percent would use private landfills only; and * 69 percent of localities would use mechanical reduction and burning in order to save needed landfill capacity.
Many plans also include a provision for pre-positioned contracts with debris-removal firms that would take effect when a disaster occurs. Those contracts save the local government the trouble of locating a contractor after the fact.
However, not everyone agrees that pre-positioned contracts are necessary or beneficial. Ramon Benitez, environmental protection specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore District, says the contracts usually are “ambiguous … based on a group of assumptions” that are not always true.
“They’re more like gentlemen’s agreements,” says Benitez, who represented the Corps during the cleanup in Franklin. “The contract says, ‘We’ll pay you to do this if this happens.’ They assume a worst-case scenario, which rarely ever occurs. The locality may end up agreeing to rates higher than necessary.” Contracts with debris haulers and others can be written hours after a severe storm, he adds.
Arthur Shaw, public works operations engineer for Virginia Beach, disagrees that localities wind up overpaying for services — precisely because pre-positioned contracts are, as Benitez says, somewhat akin to gentlemen’s agreements.
“I see no detriments, but if there are [some], the benefits far outweigh any negatives,” he says. “These contracts are written in a unit-pricing manner. The locality pays by the hour, or by the truckload, only for the services it says it needs. This way, you won’t be gouged by profiteers.”
Timothy Berkhimer, emergency management planner for the Virginia Beach Fire Department, favors pre-positioned contracts based on his experience with 1998’s Hurricane Bonnie. That storm left 500,000 cubic yards of debris as its calling card in the 1.6-million-resident Hampton Roads region. Despite widespread damage, debris removal was accomplished in a matter of weeks — not months, as might have been the case had pre-positioned contracts not been in place, Berkhimer explains.
Executing contracts also can help with receiving reimbursements from FEMA because outside contractors are required to keep detailed documentation of all work performed and related expenses. City workers may not do so because work performed may be part of their regular job description. Only work that is specifically disaster-recovery related or “above and beyond” regular duties is reimbursable.
In Virginia Beach, pre-positioned contracts resulted in FEMA reimbursing 96 percent of the city’s Bonnie-related expenses, Berkhimer notes. Ninety percent of the hurricane’s $6.3 million worth of damage was debris-related; all but $250,000 was reimbursed by FEMA.
To ensure that their pre-positioned contractors follow through, cities and counties may want to select on-call contractors from outside the affected area. During a severe storm, local forces and contractors may not be available because of damage to their own equipment and their own personal emergencies. Out-of-area companies have the ability to dispatch staff and equipment from areas that have not been ravaged.
In Virginia Beach, local firms have received city contracts; however, they have the option of hiring out-of-state businesses to be subcontractors, according to Shaw. “During Bonnie, that worked very well,” he recalls.
Pre-positioned contracts are an important element of post-disaster recovery when a city or county does not have the means to clean up debris on its own. In addition, Shaw says, it is important to go over assignments with contractors before the hurricane strikes because, once it hits the area, there may be no way to communicate with the contractors because telephone and power lines may be down.
Debris is a major factor in cleanup and recovery because it frequently blocks roads and destroys power lines. Getting rid of it as quickly as possible aids other recovery efforts because repair vehicles and crews are not hindered. Contingency plans and general backups will help cities and counties recover more quickly from a disaster and ensure that life returns to normal for its residents.
Brian Parker is a project manager in the environmental services division of LandMark Design Group, Virginia Beach, Va.