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Planning, vigilance enable massive hurricane debris cleanup operations

Although a Congress act is not required to clean up after a hurricane, or any other natural disaster, there is one that can be used to credit the rapid mobilization of relief efforts.

After Hurricane Ian hit Sarasota, trucks bearing the names of companies and area code from across the country began appearing and spreading throughout the city. Large pickers were followed by debris haulers who pluck piles of limbs and branches from the streets and deliver them to a temporary debris yard like the one at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Countywide, there are similar drop-off locations where thousands of truckloads collect and are often chipped into mulch.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, or the Stafford Act, is a federal law that was passed in 1988 and designed to provide a systematic and orderly way for local and state governments to receive natural disaster assistance.

Doug Jeffcoat, director of city of Sarasota Public Works, told City Commissioners less than a week after Ian had passed through that there was roughly twice the amount of vegetative debris left behind by Hurricane Irma and that it could take twice as long for it to be cleaned up.

Three months was required to clear debris from Hurricane Irma.

The city of Sarasota announced last week that the final pass to collect debris was underway, seven weeks after Ian arrived on the streets. Crews are currently making the final passes at an initial pass on a county-wide scale. Another is still to be completed.

But where do these workers and equipment come from? How is an emergency operation that large and broad mobilized? How are their activities documented and monitored?

Who pays for all this?

Jeffcoat stated that the Stafford Act is a policy guide regarding how local governments should procure services and how they must operate within those guidelines. “The contractors we have done this all across the U.S. These contractors hire local firms to help them, but we have the advantage of having access to crews from all parts of the country.

Sarasota County Vegetable Debris Haulers are ready to deploy at the delivery site off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Sarasota. (Andrew Warfield)

Local jurisdictions must follow a set of rules and regulations to be eligible for Stafford Act relief funds. These funds are paid out by FEMA. The city does not have debris removal vehicles in its fleet and contracts with debris clearing contractors. Each contractor specializes in three categories: vegetative (tree trunks and limbs) and vessels (wrecked cars and boats).

Some vendors in the stables of vegetative debris contractors perform only disaster recovery work. This could include hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires, floods, and so on. Other vendors may be tree service firms that are available for disaster recovery work.

Local jurisdictions don’t have to follow the Stafford Act protocols as long as FEMA doesn’t pay for them. It would take much longer if the city tried to clean up the debris by itself, as few cities have the resources or the time to do so.

Jeffcoat stated, “If I had this to do with our staff it would probably have taken nine months to a full year, but we’ve been capable of doing this in just two months.”

FEMA is always on guard

FEMA relief funds are available only to qualified applicants who have a demonstrated ability to respond to disasters. Sarasota seeks contractors through a request-for-proposal process. Typically, selected companies enter into three year agreements with optional renewals.

Jeffcoat stated that procurement follows the Stafford Act guidelines. “When FEMA arrives, we start the process of working with FEMA reimbursement. They want to see our procurement policies and see the contracts we have to make sure they were done properly.

FEMA also requires that a separate contractor monitor the debris collection. This contractor must document that it meets requirements such as not collecting demolition or household debris or that it is bagged.

Jeffcoat stated, “When you see the crews collecting, that’s one contractor. But we need two contractors for that.” We have a contractor who collects, and then we need a contractor who monitors and documents the collection process. This is in line with the Stafford Act. It identifies exactly from where the debris came. It ensures that only eligible debris is collected by government agencies. We are not allowed to collect debris for Sarasota County, for instance. They have their own contractors.”

Cities will usually work with multiple contractors for each type of debris, but depending on the severity of a disaster, may only deploy one. Multiple contractor scenarios like Ian have the city divided into zones. Auditors are responsible to ensure that each contractor stays within their designated boundaries. There was very little damage to boats so there was no need for a vessel contractor.

Ian believes that the process of initiating mobilization began when the storm entered the Gulf of Mexico days before it reached Sarasota. Jeffcoat stated that although it has been five year since Irma, the city’s contacts have remained the same.

Jeffcoat stated that as the storm approaches, “our telephone calls become more frequent in regard to what it looks like.” “Are you referring to category 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or just a tropical hurricane? We then start to put together action plans based on the type of storm we have. I meet with them within 12 hours of the storm’s end and we drive the city to find out what debris is there. This gives us the ability to move within days of bringing these trucks into collect.”

All trucks must have a certificate. They must have identifying placards at the sides. They are also measured before they are collected because they are paid per cubic yard.

Jeffcoat stated that the process begins immediately. “If we didn’t have these contracts, I couldn’t start this process for probably 45 day because I would need to have 30 contracts approved and signed by the City Commission. My biggest concern would be the availability of resources, which are already available in other places.

Assisting role

Although they work alongside contractors, city crews do so in a different capacity. They do not perform duties that are regulated by the Stafford Act. For example, they collect debris that has been bagged, otherwise containerized, or household and demolition items that have been stacked alongside vegetative waste.

It is not possible to ignore the FEMA protocols. Jeffcoat estimates that clearing debris will cost approximately $5 million.

Jeffcoat stated that most disaster relief contractors will hire as many local businesses as possible. These are usually local companies that have the equipment, staff, and trailers they need. They then mobilize vendors who are already contracted in other locations to augment their stock for localized disasters.

Jeffcoat stated, “That’s why license plates are here from all over.” “I spoke to a contractor in debris management and he said that they have companies from all across the country. These subcontractors will be following them. They might be at a forest blaze, then they might be at an earthquake, and finally they will end up here after a hurricane.