Florida grapples with a mountain of debris from Hurricane Ian

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Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian battered Florida’s southwest coast, destroying thousands of homes and claiming more than 100 lives, state and local governments are grappling with what to do with the storm’s massive amount of debris.

There are mountains of trash at dozens of temporary sites statewide, filled with fallen trees, mold rugs, soggy drywall and other storm-damaged household items. In the past seven weeks, state officials estimate that crews have removed about 20.4 million cubic yards of debris.

Millions more remain. Statewide, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have left nearly 31 million cubic yards of disaster debris in its wake, according to the Florida Department of Emergency Management, which got the figure from the Army Corps of Engineers. This is nearly five times the amount The debris created Hurricane Sandy in New York – enough to fill the Empire State Building 22 times.

Clean-up 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 John Paul Brooker, Florida’s director of ocean conservation. “With hundreds of people moving to Florida every day and coastal development off the charts, the combination of that and more intense hurricanes creates this massive problem.”

Really awesome The task became even more difficult after Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s east coast as a Category 1 hurricane on November 10. When a rare November storm hit Volusia County, home of Daytona Beach, Collapsed houses on the seashore in the ocean leaving others uninhabitable. State officials said they had no estimates of hurricane damage.

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

Hauling storm-related waste has become a grueling routine for communities in the path of hurricanes. After Hurricane Irma swept Florida in 2017, wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys and causing about two-thirds of the state’s population to lose power, nearly 29 million cubic yards of debris was left statewide, according to Army Corps estimates. Next year, Hurricane Michael It created approximately 33 million cubic yards. Hurricane Katrinathat hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, saddling many states with more than 100 million cubic yards of debris.

Scientists expect the number of deadly and costly disasters to increase as rising sea levels and warming waters, due to climate change, cause hurricanes. Gain strength quickly before coming to the beach. Research shows that debris, toxic chemicals and bacteria The spread of disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires exposes people to physical harm.

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

Each state differs in how it handles these clean-ups. In Florida, government officials are hiring contractors to pick up the waste—at a cost reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—and bring it to temporary debris management sites. From there, some of the storm’s debris will be taken to municipal dumps and some will be trucked across the state for private landfill operation.

Florida poses particular challenges because of its shallow water table and the potential for temporary landfills to leach pollutants into groundwater. This is one reason local officials may face questions about the environmental and health impacts of their decisions.

In Lee County, where Ian came ashore and left a path of destruction in his wake, local officials decided to reopen a landfill to quickly dispose of the storm’s debris. The Gulf Coast landfill closed 15 years ago at the urging of nearby residents, who bought their homes on the promise that the landfill would and would remain closed. Now the county’s plan is to allow the landfill to remain open temporarily as a catastrophic wreck site.

Residents are concerned about the landfill’s rebirth, as is the case with at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who for a local CBS company He fears the effects on air quality and the potential for water pollution. “There will be a run-off from this exposure,” he said.

Even if local sites are available, some officials fear filling landfills with storm debris. In the years since many of these landfills were established, The population has exploded In cities from the Tampa Bay area south to Fort Myers and Naples. With more plantings and the construction boom came more waste.

They were drawn to the Florida dream. After Ian they wonder: What now?

Charlotte County Public Works Director John Elias estimated Hurricane Ian left 2.5 million cubic yards of debris in the county alone — enough that the county could run out of landfill space earlier than planned, forcing difficult talks about expansion. One solution is 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 make as livable as possible,” Elias said. “And we don’t have much space in our province to create a new province.”

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

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

Some hard-to-clean areas are not on land but along coastal areas in the region and farther from the beach, according to local officials and environmental advocates. Marine waters and wetlands are strewn with damaged boats, littered 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 of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. “Anything that was on land, you should expect to be pushed and pulled and dragged in 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.

Removing this waste often takes a back seat to excavating homes and businesses. Environmentalists fear that while it remains 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” crab traps in the Keys that were abandoned after the storm and continue to entrap and kill marine animals.

In Bay County, Florida, which suffered massive damage from Hurricane Michael, officials said they have been hauling debris and dozens of wrecked boats from their waters since the storm hit four years ago. In total, they estimated that they removed 2.4 million pounds from their bays. They officially ended their efforts this fall, but the battle continues.

“We’re still doing the cleanup,” said Bob Majka, the county manager.

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