Last month, after Memorial Day weekend, floods left much of Houston underwater, crews went to work cleaning up as soon as they could safely do so. Even so, Gary Readore, chief of staff of the Houston Solid Waste Management Department, expected it would be nearly the end of summer before the city was back to normal.
“I would think in about two months everything should be looking pretty good,” Readore said. “Probably before that, but I don’t want to underestimate. I’m hearing reports we may have a pretty rainy summer, which could compound matters, generate more debris or slow us up. We just saw the start of hurricane season. That’s another thing that is always in the back of our minds.”
As well it should be. Just weeks after Houston began cleanup efforts, the city posted a new warning of yet another tropical storm due to hit the area. It could be a long wet summer in southern Texas.
After the first storm dumped 10 to 12 in. over parts of the city, crews waited for the flood waters to abate, then went out on their regular trash pick-up routes.
“People are still putting out trash as usual,” Readore said. “If we don’t pick up, we’ll get behind.”
Meanwhile, contractors readied their trucks to focus on storm debris. But that is no quick process. The trucks must first be certified by FEMA.
“To qualify for FEMA, trucks have to be verified for volume capacity,” Readore said. “A monitor follows each truck. When they leave the route they have to go to the dump and the monitor verifies how much material is on it before and then again when they get to the dump. It’s just check and balance. If you don’t have it in place, you probably won’t be reimbursed for the material. All contractor trucks have to be certified before they can go out and collect.”
Certified trucks serviced the hardest hit areas first.
“There are pockets of neighborhoods in the southwest part of town that got hit the hardest, where they had 3 to 4 feet of water, Readore said. “They had to pull all the carpets, the furniture, the sheetrock. Some houses have piles of material just sitting outside.”
While the bulk of the debris is construction debris, there also are some trees and vegetation and a lot of cars, he said. Most of those will end up being scrapped since a lot of them are old and the drivers carried only liability insurance.
“We do have abandoned vehicles on the street,” Readore. “We have big equipment trying to get it. We use 60 cubic yard trailers and a cherry picker or big clam shell grapple. It picks up material and loads it onto the trailer. One grapple truck fills one trailer, then he goes to the dump while the other truck can continue picking. When the first trailer gets back, the second is full, and it can go to the dump. The contractors have similar type equipment. They have tandem trailers so they can hold more material. They are paid by the yard so it behooves them to have a large cavity or trucks with the capacity. You load as much as you can as quick as you can. Just keep dumping and loading, dumping and loading.”
There’s good reason to work fast. Left on the street too long, the debris could attract rodents, generate odors and in general become a serious health hazard.
The city has asked residents to segregate the waste into separate piles, such as one just for household hazard waste. But scavengers looking for items that could be sold, were messing up the piles and knocking things over.
“We got with the Houston Police Department and they are going to ramp up enforcement and if they catch these guys, they are going to arrest them,” Readore said. “The material is our responsibility. In the areas where streets are blocked with cars that got flooded, the streets are congested. It’s making it difficult for trucks to get down there. And the scavengers are making it difficult. There are challenges. We try to deal with those as best as we can.”
Meanwhile, the city is still trying to figure out finances. It is estimated cleanup will cost the city between $15 to $20 million. And the money will only come in after the invoices go out — nothing is coming in upfront, Readore said.
Nor can they expect full reimbursement.
“Previously, we got 100 percent reimbursement,” he said. “This time I believe we’ll get 75 percent. The city will have to pay 25 percent. FEMA is not paying everything. Whereas with Hurricane Ike in 2008, we were able to get 100 percent. But after Hurricane Sandy and so many disasters, FEMA has looked at them and said they can’t fund everything. It’s an issue for cities.”
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