After out-of-area contractors leave Sarasota area piles by the curbside for weeks, leaders lean toward teams based closer to home.
County leaders are looking at contracting with local companies for storm-debris removal to avoid a repeat of last fall, when stacks of tree limbs, palm fronds and other debris languished at curbs for months after Hurricane Irma.
The hurricane hit the evening of Sept. 10, causing less damage than expected but still littering streets and yards with the remains of trees damaged or uprooted in Irma’s winds. The last of an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of debris was cleaned up in December.
A perfect storm of circumstances led to the unexpectedly slow timeline. Sarasota County was prepared for the storm, but many of the nation’s debris-removal contractors were tied up in Texas, cleaning up the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which struck in mid-August.
AshBritt Inc. and Crowder-Gulf Joint Ventures Inc. were supposed to respond to Sarasota in the event of a storm.
But when the county called, they weren’t able to fulfill contractual obligations.
“All available equipment and resources are currently committed in other locations,” AshBritt responded in an email in early October. The company was unable to send crews until several weeks later.
Crowder-Gulf responded, but not with the resources the county requested. Eventually, the county was forced to rent its own equipment and use its own employees to assist in debris removal before the companies could provide enough contractors to the area.
“It’s something that no one ever thought about,” said Sarasota County Solid Waste Operations Manager Lois Rose. “How do you have Texas inundated with Hurricane Harvey, then you swing and have the whole southern part of the state of Florida inundated as well? It was just an issue of resource availability.”
In the months after Hurricane Irma, the county brought in former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to conduct an after-action review and evaluate the way the county handled the emergency. As a result, the county is making changes to the way it handled things like evacuations, communications to residents and training of its own employees.
Fugate recommended adding bonds to the contracts to ensure the contractors respond on time, but Rose said the county already had those in place. Fugate also applauded the county for the quick decision to handle debris removal, for a time, by itself.
Now, the county is looking into hiring more local companies that could have the capacity to handle debris removal and not run the risk of contractors being otherwise occupied elsewhere.
“[We’re looking] at more of a local response,” said Scott Montgomery, emergency management section chief for Sarasota County.
That is one of the things that Sarasota Public Works Director Doug Jeffcoat thinks helped the city be successful. It contracted with Lakewood Ranch-based Ceres Environmental Services Inc., and did not have similar issues as the county with getting a timely response.
“Ceres is a local company,” Jeffcoat said. “They have a vested interest in this area … I think that was a benefit to us.”
The county did not issue penalties to its contractors, although AshBritt was subpoenaed by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, as part of an investigation into debris-removal companies that were slow to respond, or who wouldn’t respond until a higher rate had been negotiated after Irma. That investigation is still ongoing.
Rose commended the contractors for letting the county know the problems they were having. She disagreed with penalizing them for not responding in force as soon as the county issued a request.
“Did they perform? Yes,” she said. “Why would you shoot yourselves in the foot [by issuing penalties]? … I don’t know what else you could do.”
The next hurricane season begins June 1. Read the full after-action review about Hurricane Irma here.