Hurricane Ian left behind mountains of debris.  Cleaning it up will take months.

Hurricane Ian left behind mountains of debris. Cleaning it up will take months.


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

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

Millions more remain. Statewide, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have left behind nearly 31 million cubic yards of debris, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which obtained the figure from the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s about five times the amount of debris Hurricane Sandy created in New York – and enough to fill the Empire State Building 22 times.

Cleanup efforts in 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 Florida hasn’t seen in a long time,” said Jon Paul Brooker, Florida conservation director at the Ocean Conservancy. “With hundreds of people traveling to Florida every day and extraordinary coastal development, the combination of that and more intense hurricanes is resulting in this massive problem.”

The already huge The task only became more daunting after 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 damage estimate from the hurricane.

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

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

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

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

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

Florida poses particular challenges due to its shallow water table and the potential for makeshift landfills to leach contaminants into groundwater. This is one reason why local officials are likely to face questions about the effects of their decisions on the environment and public health.

In Lee County, where Ian landed and left a path of destruction in his wake, local authorities decided to re-open a landfill to quickly dispose of debris from the storm. The Gulf Coast landfill closed 15 years ago at the behest of nearby residents, who had bought their homes on the promise that the landfill would close 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 revival, as is at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who told a local CBS affiliate he feared the effects on air quality and potential contamination from the water. “There will be a trickle down from this exposure,” he said.

Even where local sites are available, some officials worry about filling their landfills with storm debris. In the years following the construction of many of these landfills, population exploded in towns in the Tampa Bay area south to Fort Myers and Naples. With more transplants and a building boom, there has been more waste.

They were drawn to the Floridian dream. After Ian, they ask themselves: What now?

John Elias, Charlotte County’s director of public works, estimated that Hurricane Ian left behind 2.5 million cubic meters of debris in the county alone – enough that the county could run out of landfill space. sooner than expected, forcing difficult conversations about whether to 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’re trying to maximize the lifespan of,” Elias said. “And we don’t have a lot of space in our county to create a new one.”

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

Townsend said after damaged drywall from flooded homes hits landfills, wet gypsum mixes with bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide gas. In addition to smelling like rotten eggs, the toxic gas can trigger headaches and nausea and cause health problems for people with asthma. Many of the larger landfills capture this gas and other harmful gases in collection systems. A spokesperson for Waste Management, which operates the Gulf Coast landfill, said such a system was in place.

Some of the toughest areas to clean up are not on land but along the region’s coastal areas and just offshore, according to local officials and conservationists. The offshore waters and wetlands are littered with damaged boats, scattered pier poles and other debris.

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

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

Disposing of this waste often takes precedence over clearing homes and businesses. Conservationists fear that as long as it stays in the water, it could damage seagrass beds 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 groups 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 Bay County, Florida, which suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Michael, officials said they have removed debris and dozens of broken boats from their waters since the storm hit a while ago. four years. In total, they estimate they removed 2.4 million pounds from their berries. They officially ended their efforts this fall, but the battle continues.

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

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