Florida grapples with mountain of debris from Hurricane Ian

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

There are mountains of refuse at dozens of temporary sites statewide, filled with fallen trees, mildewing carpet, sodden drywall and other household items destroyed by the storm. In the past seven weeks, state officials estimate crews have removed about 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 disaster debris, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which obtained the figure from the Army Corps of Engineers. That is roughly 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 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 Florida hasn’t seen in a long time,” said Jon Paul Brooker, Ocean Conservancy’s director of Florida conservation. “With hundreds of people moving to Florida every day and coastal development off the charts, the combination of that and more intense hurricanes results in this massive problem.”

The already enormous task has only become more daunting after Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s east coast as a Category 1 hurricane on Nov. 10. When the rare November storm lashed Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, it toppled beachside homes into the ocean and left others uninhabitable. State officials said they did not yet have an estimate of the hurricane’s damage.

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

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

Scientists expect the number of costly, deadly disasters will increase as rising sea levels and warming waters, fueled by climate change, cause hurricanes to gain strength rapidly before coming ashore. Research shows that the debris, toxic chemicals and bacteria spread by disasters like hurricanes, floods and fires are exposing people to physical harm.

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

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

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

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

Residents are concerned about the landfill’s rebirth, as is at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who told a local CBS affiliate he fears the effects on air quality and potential water contamination. “There will be runoff from that exposure,” he said.

Even where local sites are available, some officials are apprehensive about filling up their landfills with storm debris. In the years since many of those 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 lured by the Florida dream. After Ian they wonder: What now?

John Elias, the public works director for Charlotte County, estimated that Hurricane Ian left behind 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 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 we’re trying to maximize the life of,” Elias said. “And we don’t have that much space in our county to create a new one.”

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

Townsend said after damaged drywall from flooded homes reaches landfills, the 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 largest landfills capture this and other noxious gases in collection systems. A spokesperson for Waste Management, which operates the Gulf Coast Landfill, said it has such a system in place.

Some of the hardest 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. The offshore waters and wetlands are strewn with damaged boats, scattered dock posts and other debris.

“There’s a lot of debris we know is in the water that we can’t see,” said Jason Rolfe, a coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. “Anything that was on the 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.

Removing this waste often takes a back seat to digging out 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 groups are still working to remove “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys that were abandoned after the storm and continue to ensnare and kill marine animals.

In Florida’s Bay County, which suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Michael, officials said they have been pulling debris and dozens of broken-down boats out of their waters ever since the storm hit four years ago. In total, they estimate they have removed 2.4 million pounds from their bays. They officially wrapped up their efforts this fall, but the battle continues.

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

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