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Planning, vigilance enable massive hurricane debris cleanup operations

Plant debris cleanup operations brought workers and equipment from across the country to Sarasota on a moment's notice. Disaster-stricken areas have a former congressman from Vermont to thank for it.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 23, 2022
  • Sarasota
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Cleaning up after a hurricane or other natural disaster doesn’t require an act of Congress, but there actually is one to credit for the rapid mobilization and deployment of relief efforts.

Within days after Hurricane Ian blew through Sarasota, trucks emblazoned with names of companies and area codes from across the country began to appear and fan out throughout the city; massive pickers followed by debris haulers plucking piles of limbs, branches and tree trunks from the sides of streets and delivered to a makeshift debris yards, in the case of the city of Sarasota, off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Similar drop-off sites exist countywide, where thousands of truckloads of debris is collected and often chipped into mulch.

The efficiency of vegetative and other debris clearing is largely credited to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act — or Stafford Act for short —  a 1988 federal law designed to bring an orderly and systematic means of natural disaster assistance to state and local governments. 

Less than a week after Ian blew through, city of Sarasota Public Works Director Doug Jeffcoat told City Commissioners that, with roughly double the vegetative debris than that left behind by Hurricane Irma, it could take twice as long to clean it up.

Irma debris clearing took three months.

Last week, though, just seven weeks after Ian made landfall, the city of Sarasota announced the beginning the final pass to collect remaining debris amid a noticeable reduction of crews operating on city streets. On a countywide scale, crews are making the last runs at an initial pass, with another still to come.

But where do these workers and pieces of equipment come from, and how is an emergency operation of that size and scope mobilized? And how are their activities monitored and documented?

And who pays for all this?

 “The Stafford Act is a policy guide with regard to how local governments must procure the services and how they have to operate within those guidelines,” Jeffcoat said. “The contractors that we have do this all over the U.S. These contractors try to hire as many local firms to come in and help, but the benefit to us is that they have access to crews from all over the country.”

Vegetative debris haulers await deployment at the delivery site off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota. (Andrew Warfield)
Vegetative debris haulers await deployment at the delivery site off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota. (Andrew Warfield)

For local jurisdictions to qualify for Stafford Act relief funds, paid out by FEMA, they must conform to a specific set of rules and regulations. Not having debris cleanup vehicles in its fleet, the city contracts with debris clearing contractors, each specializing in three specific categories: vegetative (tree limbs, tree trunks and similar); vessels (wrecked boats and cars) and household (shingles, siding, fencing, ruined drywall and carpets, appliances and furniture).

Some of the vendors in the vegetative debris contractors’ stables perform only disaster recovery work, be they hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, etc. Others may be tree service companies that are on call as disasters loom.

Local jurisdictions aren’t bound to follow the Stafford Act protocols, as long as they don’t expect FEMA to pay for it. And if the city were to attempt to clear the debris on its own, it would take much longer because few cities would have the resources either in its fleet or on call. 

“If I had to do this with our staff it would probably take nine months to a year, where we've been able to do this in almost two months,” Jeffcoat said.


FEMA keeps a watchful eye

Qualifying for FEMA relief funds requires ongoing preparedness for disaster. Sarasota procures its contractors through a request for proposal process, and selected companies typically enter into three-year agreements with optional renewals.

“Procurement has Stafford Act guidelines, so we have to make sure that we follow that,” Jeffcoat said. “When FEMA shows up, we then start this process of working with FEMA reimbursement. They want to see our procurement policies, they want to see the contracts that we have and to ensure that they were done in a proper manner.”

FEMA also requires a separate contractor to monitor the debris collection, documenting that it meets with requirements that include not collecting household or demolition debris, or that which is bagged.

“When you see the crews out collecting that's one contractor, but we have to have two contractors for that,” Jeffcoat said. “We have a contractor that collects, and then we have to have a contractor that monitors and documents the collection process. That's in keeping with the Stafford Act, and what it does is identifies exactly where the debris is coming from. It ensures that a government agency is collecting debris that is eligible. We are not allowed, for example, to go and collect debris for Sarasota County. They have their own contractors.”

Cities will typically work with multiple contractors for each category of debris although, depending on the severity of the disaster, may deploy only one. In multiple contractor scenarios, such as Ian, the city is divided into zones and auditors are responsible for ensuring each contractor remains within its assigned boundaries. Because there was little damage to boats here, there was no need to deploy a vessels contractor.

For Ian, the process to initiate mobilization began once the storm entered the Gulf of Mexico, days before it approached Sarasota. Although it has been five years since Irma, Jeffcoat said the city’s contacts remained the same.

“As the storm moves closer, our telephone calls become more frequent with regard to what does it look like,” Jeffcoat said. “Are we talking about category 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; or just a tropical storm? And then we start putting together action plans as to how many crews we anticipate based on what type of storm we have. Within 12 hours after the storm is over, I'm meeting with them and we're driving the city to determine what actual debris is sitting out there. That gives us the capability to start moving within days of bringing these trucks in to start collecting.”

All trucks must be certified. They must carry identifying placards on the sides and they are measured before collecting because they are paid by the cubic yard.

“This process starts immediately for us,” Jeffcoat said. “If we did not have these contracts in place, I could not start this process for probably 45 days because I would have to have  30 contracts approved by the City Commission. Then my biggest issue would be how many resources are still available because they’re already out in other places.”


A supporting role

City crews do work alongside the contractors, but in a different capacity. They perform tasks not regulated under the Stafford Act, such as collecting debris that has been bagged or otherwise containerized, or household or demolition items stacked alongside vegetative debris.

Not carefully maintaining the FEMA protocols is not an option. Jeffcoat estimates the cost of clearing the debris at about $5 million.

Most disaster relief contractors, Jeffcoat said, will hire as many local companies as possible. Those are typically development companies that have the trailers, skid loaders, specialty equipment and staff already in place. They then augment their stock by mobilizing vendors already under contract in other locations for localized disasters elsewhere.

“That’s why you see license plates here from all over,” Jeffcoat said. “I was talking to one of the contractors in debris management who said they have companies from all over the country. These subcontractors will follow them. They will be at a forest fire, then they might be at a tornado, and then they end up coming down here after a hurricane.”