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An Enormous, Urgent Task: Hauling Away Harvey’s Debris

September 7, 2017

New York Times
By Jason Schwartz and Alan Blinder

HOUSTON — On Labor Day, Pireta Darby sat on the front porch of her house in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. The fruits of her labors were before her: the sodden objects lugged out of the home she shares with her mother and granddaughter. Here were two couches piled high with ripped-out carpet. A coffee table. A folding chair. And so much more, removed from the family home of about 60 years.

“I guess they’ll just come with the big truck with the claw thing” to haul it away, she said, gazing at the mess; at least the family has insurance.

Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

The piles up and down this street, and along many other nearby streets — shards of wallboard and mildewing carpet, artificial flowers and computer monitors — stand taller than some people. There are sofas and desk chairs, ironing boards and drum sets — discrete items all destroyed by a storm and the floodwaters that followed. And across this city, there are more than 100,000 such piles, many of them even larger.

Of all the challenges that southeast Texas faces after Hurricane Harvey, few will linger longer or more visibly than the millions of pounds of debris already crowding curbs and edging onto streets. The cleanup, needed from northeast Houston’s neighborhoods to the wealthy suburbs southwest of the city, will take months and cost billions of dollars.

Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston has identified two priorities for his city’s recovery: housing and debris removal.

“We’re going to pick it up, and we’re going to operate with the highest degree of urgency,” Mr. Turner said.

At the same time, Houston officials are asking residents to separate their Harvey-related waste into five piles: appliances; electronics; construction and demolition debris; household hazardous waste; and vegetative debris. A look at these streets suggested that few people seemed to be heeding the city’s pleas.

Other cities have been through this battle with a storm’s leavings. After floodwaters inundated East Baton Rouge Parish, La., last year, crews collected about two million cubic yards of debris. Superstorm Sandy, in 2012, led to about six million cubic yards of debris in New York State — the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Katrina left behind 38 million cubic yards. Getting the stuff gone is a long process. It was only last month that Baton Rouge finished the debris removal process it organized in the wake of last year’s flooding there.

In Houston, where city officials say that some eight million cubic yards of debris will need to be hauled away, collection is farther along in some neighborhoods than in others. In Ms. Darby’s neighborhood, only a handful of volunteers were around to help in the disaster zone. In Bellaire, a wealthy city southwest of downtown, dozens of trucks were parked on the streets, their owners helping people bring their belongings outside. Poachers picked through the refuse for items that could potentially be sold, leading residents to spray-paint warning signs telling people to stay away from their debris.

Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

The job of deciding how to move these mountains has been left to county and local officials, who hire debris removal companies to help them dig out. FEMA will reimburse the local governments for 90 percent of the cost. One major removal company, AshBritt, already has “dozens of operations” going on in Texas from Harvey, said Jared Moskowitz, the general counsel for the company. He said he expects more to come.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency whose territory included New York and New Jersey, said that environmental considerations have to be part of the process, even after a disaster. Ms. Enck, who calls herself a “solid waste geek,” was heavily involved in debris removal after Sandy hit the Northeast. Figuring out what to do with debris is one of the most challenging aspects of any storm, and because decisions are generally made at the local level, she said, “every community has to kind of reinvent the wheel.”

Setting aside appliances like refrigerators for recycling, chipping downed trees for mulch instead of burning them, prevents pollution and extends the life of landfills. Leaking landfills can pollute groundwater. “The victims of these storms are already in environmentally compromised situations,” she said, “and the way debris is handled should not make it worse.”

She said that separating waste by type is anything but fussy, especially in the age of climate change, when scientists have shown that global warming is producing wetter storms and contributing to more destructive storm surges, and could also be making some storms more powerful.

“I fully understand people saying, ‘This is an emergency — let’s suspend the norms,’ ” Ms. Enck said. “But these hurricanes and floods are becoming the norm.”

Historically, Texas has not shown deep concern over environmental issues, and in the current crisis, its stance on debris removal has been similar. Governor Greg Abbott has temporarily suspended 19 environmental rules that the state said would “prevent, hinder or delay” Harvey disaster response.

After reviewing the changes, Andrew Dobbs, a program director with the Texas Campaign of the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group, said, “They have suspended more or less every meaningful environmental protection.”

The communities hit by the storm “were already some of the most polluted in our country,” Mr. Dobbs said, “and the regulations in place were already insufficient to protect their health and well-being.” Relaxing the rules now, he said, will “escalate this problem in a dramatic way.”

At Ms. Darby’s house, the process of tossing and salvaging continued. With the help of some family members and their friends, the Darbys were packing some items into plastic containers for safekeeping at self-storage facility while they stay at a hotel. Flooding is not new to them: Tropical Storm Allison caused substantial damage in 2001, and the Darbys lived in a FEMA trailer while they fixed the house up that time.

As Ms. Darby decided what to toss and what to try to save, she reflected on how she had told herself a while back that she really should get rid of some things. “The Lord has a way of making you clean up and clean out,” she said with a laugh.

Her mother, Mary Darby, 84, was less sanguine, even after telling herself that the family had lost only possessions, not loved ones. Standing in her home, mold already visible on the walls, she began to cry.

“It’s material,” she said a few moments later. “But it hurts.”

Annie Correal and Manny Fernandez contributed reporting.

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