Florida is grappling with the mountain of debris from Hurricane Ian * Florida


Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwest coast, destroying thousands of homes and taking more than 100 lives, state and local governments are grappling with what to do with a staggering amount of storm debris.

There are mountains of trash at dozens of temporary sites across the state, filled with fallen trees, carpeting, soaked drywall and other household items destroyed by the storm. Over the past seven weeks, state officials estimate crews have removed about 20.4 million cubic yards of debris.

There are millions more to go. Across the state, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have left behind nearly 31 million cubic yards of disaster debris, according to the Florida Department of Emergency Management, which obtained the number from the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s about five times the amount of debris created by Hurricane Sandy in New York – and enough to fill the Empire State Building 22 times over.

Cleanup 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 that Florida hasn’t seen in a long time,” said Jon Paul Brooker, Florida conservation director for the Ocean Conservancy. “With hundreds of people moving to Florida every day and coastal development off the charts, the combination of that and more intense hurricanes is leading to this huge problem.”

The already huge The task only became more daunting when Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s east coast as a Category 1 hurricane on November 10. When the rare November storm hit Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, it toppled beachfront homes into the ocean and left others uninhabitable. State officials said they do not yet have a hurricane damage estimate.

After Ian, Florida’s waterways could remain polluted for months

Storm-related debris removal has become a daunting routine for communities in the path of hurricanes. After Hurricane Irma swept through Florida in 2017, causing extensive damage to the Florida Keys and causing about two-thirds of the state’s residents to lose power, nearly 29 million cubic yards of debris remained across the state, the Army Corps estimated. The following year, Hurricane Michael created nearly 33 million cubic meters. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, left several states with more than 100 million cubic meters of debris.

Scientists expect the number of costly, deadly disasters to rise as rising sea levels and warming waters fueled by climate change cause hurricanes to rapidly strengthen before making landfall. Research shows that debris, toxic chemicals, and bacteria spread by disasters like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires expose people to physical harm.

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

Each state varies in how it handles such cleanups. In Florida, government officials are hiring contractors to pick up the debris — at a cost largely reimbursed by FEMA — and move it to temporary debris management sites. From there, some of the storm debris will be taken to municipal landfills and some will be trucked across the state for private landfills.

Florida poses particular challenges because of its shallow aquifer and the potential for makeshift landfills to leach contaminants into groundwater. That’s one reason local officials are likely to face questions about the effects of their decisions on the environment and public health.

In Lee County, where Ian made landfall and left a path of destruction in its wake, local officials decided to reopen a landfill to quickly dispose of storm debris. The Gulf Coast landfill was closed 15 years ago at the urging of nearby residents, who had bought their homes with the promise that the landfill would be closed and stay closed. Now the county’s plan is to allow the landfill to remain open, temporarily, as a disaster debris site.

Residents are concerned about the landfill’s resurgence, as is at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who told a local CBS affiliate he fears impacts to air quality and possible water contamination. “There will be a fallout from this report,” he said.

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

They were seduced by the Florida dream. After Ian they wonder: Now what?

John Elias, director of public works for Charlotte County, estimated that Hurricane Ian left behind 2.5 million cubic yards of trash in the county alone — enough for the county to run out of landfill space earlier than planned, forcing difficult discussions about whether it will be extended. One solution would be to move some of their debris across the state to a large, private landfill in rural Okeechobee.

“We have a landfill that we’re trying to maximize its life,” Elias said. “And we don’t have that much room in our county to create a new one.”

Growing landfills pose well-documented risks, including the production of methane, a more potent, though shorter-lived, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But the accumulation of storm debris can cause additional problems.

Townsend said that after damaged drywall from flooded homes reaches landfills, the liquid plaster mixes with bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide gas. In addition to smelling like rotten eggs, the toxic gas can cause headaches and nausea and cause health problems in people with asthma. Many of the larger landfills trap this and other harmful gases in collection systems. A spokesman for Waste Management, which manages the Gulf Landfill, said it has such a system.

Some of the most difficult areas to clean up are not on land, but along the region’s coastal areas and just offshore, according to local officials and environmental advocates. Coastal waters and wetlands are littered with wrecked boats, scattered docks and other debris.

“There’s a lot of debris that we know is in the water that we can’t see,” said Jason Rolfe, coordinator for 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 the Ocean Conservancy plans to hire local fishing guides this winter to collect debris in mangroves, swamps and other hard-to-reach areas.

The removal of this waste often takes second place to the excavation of homes and businesses. Environmentalists fear that while it remains in the water, it could damage seagrasses and fragile habitats in the state’s shallow coastal waters, harming wildlife for years to come.

More than five years after Hurricane Irma, Rolfe said teams are still working to remove “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys that were abandoned after the storm and continue to trap and kill marine animals.

In Florida’s Bay County, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Michael, officials said they have been pulling debris and dozens of damaged boats from their waters since the storm hit four years ago. In total, they estimate they have taken £2.4m out of their pockets. They officially ended their efforts this fall, but the battle continues.

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

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