Clearing the clutter key for pleasing residents post-hurricane


After the storm moved through, after life and limb had been accounted for, debris removal topped the list of priorities for residents, said officials from counties hit hard last year by Hurricane Irma.

In a lessons learned session Thursday at the 32nd annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, officials from Lee, Clay, Collier and St. John’s counties said residents implored them to clear away debris scattered by Irma, which made landfall September 10 at Marco Island on Florida’s west coast.

Their experiences were similar to what took place in Palm Beach County, as the county’s Solid Waste Authority oversaw the removal or processing of 2.3 million cubic yards of debris in Irma’s aftermath.

The massive storm, a terrifying Category 5 at one point, produced sustained wins of 112 miles per hour in Naples, knocked out power to nearly three-quarters of the state and spurred one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.

The size of the storm meant counties throughout the state had some of the same needs at the same time, including debris removal.

Frustrated residents called county commissioners, who in turn sought to make sure staff overseeing debris removal were doing just that.

John Ward, Clay County’s Emergency Management director, warned his colleagues Thursday that, of all of the things they focus on in the aftermath of the storm, they need to make sure clutter is being cleared.

“That debris is really going to wear out your commissioners and make you look bad,” Ward said.

Several commissioners in Palm Beach County joined Solid Waste Authority officials in pleading for patience as crews — many of them from out of state — worked overtime to haul away vegetative and other types of debris.

Unlike what took place in other counties, the authority did not have to get into a bidding war for haulers suddenly in demand throughout the state. The authority had contracts in place in advance of the storm, and it executed those contracts once the hurricane moved through.

Some of the emergency management officials at Thursday’s session said they had to make call after call to find haulers willing to work for what their county could pay.

Ward said counties should make arrangements for debris removal long before a storm approaches. But in ranking firms bidding for the work, the lowest bidder shouldn’t always come out on top.

Counties should make sure the firms they contract with have experience and a track record of doing what they said they would do.

Beyond making early and sound arrangements for debris removal, officials at the session said managing the expectations of residents and keeping them informed were also key.

“We really used social media,” said Greg Caldwell, assistant public works director in St. John’s County.

Caldwell said he and his colleagues provided frequent updates on their progress. Those updates served to blunt criticism that they weren’t doing enough to help residents after the storm.

“People would defend our actions,” he said. “When someone would criticize us, someone else would say, ‘Hey, these guys are working hard.’ At the end of the day, people want to know you’re out there working.”

Dave Harner, assistant county manager in Lee County, said counties throughout Florida need to understand that the hurricane threat is real.

He said his county hadn’t done all it could before Irma hit the state.

“I think the key is being prepared,” he said. “I don’t think we were prepared in the beginning, but we were able to overcome that pretty quickly.”



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