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Florida struggles with debris from Hurricane Ian

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Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian struck the Southwest Florida coast, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than 100 people, state and local governments are wrestling with what to do with a staggering amount of storm debris.

There are mountains of trash at dozens of makeshift sites across the state, filled with fallen trees, moldy carpets, soaked drywall and other household items destroyed by the storm. In the past seven weeks, state officials are estimated to have removed about 20.4 million cubic yards of debris.

Millions more remain. According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which obtained the figure from the Army Corps of Engineers, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have left nearly 8 million cubic yards of disaster debris in its wake statewide. That’s about five times the amount of debris caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York – and enough to fill the Empire State Building 22 times.

Clean-up efforts in the coastal cities and counties hardest hit by the Category 4 storm will likely take months and cost billions of dollars.

“This is storm debris on a scale not seen in Florida in a long time,” said Jon Paul Brooker, director of Florida conservation at the Ocean Conservancy. “With hundreds of people moving to Florida every day and coastal development spiraling out of control, the combination of that and more intense hurricanes is creating this massive problem.”

That’s huge The task has only become more daunting after Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s east coast on November 10 as a Category 1 hurricane. As the rare November storm lashed Volusia County, home of Daytona Beach, it tossed beach homes into the ocean and left others uninhabitable. State officials said they don’t yet have an estimate of the damage from the hurricane.

According to Ian, Florida’s waterways could remain polluted for months

Hauling away storm-related debris has become a daunting routine for communities en route to hurricanes. After Hurricane Irma swept through Florida in 2017, wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys and causing power outages for about two-thirds of the state’s residents, nearly 29 million cubic yards of debris remained in its wake statewide, the Army Corps estimated. The next year, Hurricane Michael caused nearly 33 million cubic feet. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, dumped more than 100 million cubic yards of debris in several states.

Scientists expect the number of costly, deadly disasters to increase as rising sea levels and warming waters, fueled by climate change, cause hurricanes to rapidly build strength before they make landfall. Research shows that debris, toxic chemicals and bacteria spread by disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires expose people to physical harm.

Right now, experts are asking a more immediate question, said Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida: “Where do we possibly find a place for all of this?”

Each state differs in how it handles such cleanups. In Florida, government officials hire contractors to pick up the trash — at a cost mostly reimbursed by FEMA — and take it to makeshift garbage disposal sites. From there, some of the storm debris is taken to municipal landfills and some is shipped across the state to privately operated landfills.

Florida poses particular challenges due to its shallow water table and the potential for makeshift landfills to leach contaminants into groundwater. That’s one reason local officials are likely to face questions about the environmental and public health impact of their decisions.

In Lee County, where Ian came ashore and left a trail of devastation, local officials have decided to reopen a landfill site to quickly dispose of storm debris. The Gulf Coast landfill was closed 15 years ago at the urging of local residents who bought their homes with promises that the landfill would close and remain closed. Now the county plans to temporarily keep the landfill open as a site for disaster debris.

Local residents are concerned about the landfill’s rebirth, as is at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who told a local CBS affiliate he feared the impact on air quality and possible water pollution. “There will be an outflow from that exposure,” he said.

Even where local sites are available, some officials have concerns about filling their landfills with storm debris. In the years since many of these landfills were built, populations have exploded in cities from Tampa Bay south to Fort Myers and Naples. With more transplants and a construction boom came more waste.

They were lured by the Florida dream. After Ian, they ask themselves: what now?

John Elias, the Charlotte County director of public works, estimates that Hurricane Ian left 2.5 million cubic yards of debris in the county alone — enough that the county could run out of landfill space sooner than planned, leading to difficult discussions about it whether it should expand. One solution would be to ship some of their debris across the state to a large, private landfill in rural Okeechobee.

“We have a landfill that we want to maximize the lifespan of,” Elias said. “And we don’t have that much space in our county to create a new one.”

Growing landfills pose well-documented dangers, such as the production of methane, a more potent, albeit shorter-lived, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, piling up storm debris can cause additional problems.

Townsend said after damaged drywall from flooded homes reached landfills, the wet plaster mixes with bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide gas. Not only does the toxic gas smell like rotten eggs, it can also trigger headaches and nausea, and cause health problems for people with asthma. Many of the largest landfills capture this and other noxious gases in collection systems. A spokesman for waste management, which operates the Gulf Coast landfill, said they have such a system in place.

Some of the most difficult areas to remediate are not on land but along the region’s coastal areas and just offshore, according to local officials and environmentalists. The offshore waters and wetlands are littered with damaged boats, scattered dock posts and other debris.

“We know there’s a lot of debris in the water that we can’t see,” said Jason Rolfe, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. “Anything that was on land, you should expect to be pushed, pulled, dragged into the water.”

In southwest Florida, Brooker said, Ocean Conservancy plans to hire local fishing guides this winter to collect debris in mangroves, swamps and other hard-to-reach areas.

Disposal of this waste often takes a backseat to digging up homes and businesses. Conservationists fear that while it remains in the water, it could damage seagrass and delicate habitats in the state’s shallow coastal waters, and harm wildlife for years to come.

More than five years after Hurricane Irma, Rolfe says groups are still working to remove “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys that were abandoned after the storm and continue to lure and kill sea creatures.

In Florida’s Bay County, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Michael, officials said they have dragged debris and dozens of wrecked boats out of their waters since the storm four years ago. In total they estimate they have removed £2.4million from their bays. They officially concluded their effort this fall, but the fight continues.

“We’re still cleaning up,” County Manager Bob Majka said.

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