State and local agencies are struggling to figure out what to do with a startling amount of storm debris nearly two months after Hurricane Ian roared into the southwest Florida coast, damaging thousands of homes and costing more than 100 lives.
Mountains of trash, including downed trees, mouldy carpet, soggy drywall, and other storm-damaged household belongings, are piled high at dozens of temporary locations across the state. State officials calculate that workers have cleared out around 20.4 million cubic yards of trash over the last seven weeks.
Millions more still exist. According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which received the estimate from the Army Corps of Engineers, Hurricane Ian is thought to have left behind roughly 31 million cubic yards of disaster debris throughout the state. That would fill the Empire State Building 22 times or almost five times the material that Hurricane Sandy deposited in New York.
It will probably take months and cost billions of dollars to complete the cleanup in the coastal counties and cities most severely damaged by the Category 4 storm.
Director of Florida conservation for Ocean Conservancy Jon Paul Brooker commented, “This is storm debris on a magnitude Florida hasn’t seen in a long time.” The combination of increased coastal development, stronger hurricanes, and hundreds of people’s daily arrival has created an enormous challenge.
After Storm Nicole made landfall on Florida’s east coast as a Category 1 hurricane on November 10, the already enormous undertaking grew more challenging. Volusia County, which contains Daytona Beach, was hit by the unusual November hurricane, which destroyed some beachfront properties and rendered others uninhabitable. State officials stated they did not currently have a damage assessment from the storm.
Communities along a hurricane’s path now face the enormous task of hauling away storm-related garbage. The Army Corps calculated that almost 29 million cubic yards of debris were scattered across Florida after Hurricane Irma passed through the state in 2017, causing significant damage in the Florida Keys and knocking out electricity for about two-thirds of the state’s people. Hurricane Michael produced roughly 33 million cubic yards the following year. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, it left over 100 million cubic yards of debris in numerous states.
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As hurricanes intensify quickly before hitting land due to rising sea levels and hotter waters brought on by climate change, scientists anticipate an increase in the number of expensive and fatal disasters. According to research, people are at risk for bodily harm because of the debris, hazardous chemicals, and bacteria spread by natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and fires.
According to Timothy Townsend, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Florida, experts are asking a more pressing question: “Where are we going to find room for all this?”
How each state manages these cleanups varies. Government officials in Florida are hiring contractors to collect the trash and transport it to makeshift debris management facilities at a cost primarily covered by FEMA. The storm debris will be transported to privately owned landfills across the state and some municipal ones.
Due to its shallow water table and the possibility of pollutant leaching into groundwater from improvised landfills, Florida presents unique issues. This is one of the reasons why local politicians could be questioned about how their choices would affect the environment and the general public’s health.
Local officials in Lee County, where Ian made landfall and left a trail of devastation in its wake, have chosen to reopen a landfill to dispose of storm debris quickly. Residents of the area, who had bought their homes on the promise that the dump would close and remain closed, pushed for the closure of the Gulf Coast Landfill fifteen years ago. The dump will now be kept open temporarily as a disaster waste site, according to the county’s plan.
Residents and at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, are worried about the landfill’s revival. Pendergrass told a local CBS affiliate that he is concerned about the impact on air quality and possible water contamination. “Runoff from that exposure will occur,” he declared.
Some officials are wary of putting storm debris in their landfills, even though nearby locations are available. The population of cities from the Tampa Bay region south to Fort Myers and Naples has skyrocketed since several of those landfills were constructed. More garbage resulted from an increase in transplants and a building boom.
According to John Elias, Charlotte County’s director of public works, Hurricane Ian left behind 2.5 million cubic yards of debris in the county alone. This much waste could cause the county to run out of landfill space sooner than anticipated, requiring difficult decisions on whether to expand. One option would be to transport some of their waste to a sizable, private dump in the rural Okeechobee area of the state.
Elias stated, “We have a landfill we’re trying to maximise the life of. And there isn’t much room in our county to build a new one.
Growing landfills are known to be dangerous because they produce methane, a more potent but transient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, adding more storm debris can lead to more issues.
According to Townsend, when wet gypsum from damaged drywall from flooded homes combines with microorganisms in landfills, the result is a gas called hydrogen sulphide. The poisonous gas, which has a rotten egg scent, can make asthmatics feel sick and cause headaches and nausea. Many giant landfills capture this and other harmful gases in collecting systems. According to a Waste Management representative who also operates the Gulf Coast Landfill, such a mechanism exists.
According to local officials and environmental advocates, some of the most challenging spots to clean up are not on land but rather along the region’s coastline and just offshore. Damaged boats, dock posts, and other debris are all over the marshes and offshore waterways.
According to Jason Rolfe, coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Trash Program, “there is a lot of debris we know is in the ocean that we can’t see.” You should prepare to be pushed, tugged, or dragged into the sea if something is on land.
According to Brooker, Ocean Conservancy in Southwest Florida intends to employ regional fishing guides this winter to gather debris in mangroves, swamps, and other difficult-to-reach regions.
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Digging out houses and businesses frequently takes priority over removing this debris. Environmentalists worry that while it’s still in the water, it will affect the state’s shallow coastal waters’ fragile habitats and seagrass beds, endangering species for years.
Rolfe said organisations are still trying to get rid of “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys that were abandoned after Hurricane Irma and still catch and kill marine life more than five years later.
Officials in Florida’s Bay County, severely damaged by Hurricane Michael, claimed that they had been removing debris and hundreds of wrecked boats from their seas since the storm struck four years ago. They estimate they have taken 2.4 million pounds out of their bays altogether. They formally finished their work this October, yet the conflict still exists.
County Manager Bob Majka stated, “We are still cleaning up.”
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