Science

Florida grapples with mountain of debris from Hurricane Ian

Remark

Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian ravaged 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 a staggering amount of debris.

There are mountains of trash in dozens of temporary sites statewide, filled with fallen trees, moldy carpet, soggy 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 left behind an estimated nearly 31 million cubic feet of disaster 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 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, Florida Conservancy director of Ocean Conservancy. “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 huge problem.”

The already huge The 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 hit Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, beachfront homes fell into the ocean and others became 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

Disposing of storm-related waste has become a daunting routine for communities in the path of hurricanes. After Hurricane Irma swept across Florida in 2017, wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys and causing about two-thirds of the state’s residents to lose power, nearly 80 million cubic feet of debris remained statewide, the Army Corps estimated. The following year, Hurricane Michael created nearly 33 million cubic feet. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, left several states with more than 100 million cubic feet of debris.

Scientists expect the number of costly, deadly disasters to increase as rising sea levels and warming waters fueled by climate change cause hurricanes to quickly gain strength before making landfall. Research shows that the 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 direct question, said Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida: “Where are we possibly going to find space for all this?”

Each state varies in how it handles such cleanups. In Florida, government officials hire contractors to pick up the waste — for a fee largely covered by FEMA — and take it to temporary waste disposal sites. From there, some of the storm debris will be taken to municipal landfills and some will be transported by the state to private landfills.

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

In Lee County, where Ian made landfall and left a trail of destruction, local officials have decided to reopen a landfill to quickly get rid of the storm debris. The Gulf Coast landfill closed 15 years ago at the urging of local residents, who had bought their homes with the promise that the landfill would close and remain closed. Now the county’s plan is to temporarily leave the landfill open as a disaster rubble 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 possible water pollution. “There will be runoff from that exposure,” he said.

Even where local sites are available, some officials are apprehensive about filling their landfills with storm debris. In the years since many of those landfills were built, populations have exploded in cities from the Tampa Bay area south to Fort Myers and Naples. With more transplants and a construction boom came more waste.

They were lured by the Florida dream. After Ian, they wonder: what next?

John Elias, Charlotte County’s director of public works, estimated that Hurricane Ian left behind 2.5 million cubic feet of debris in the county alone — enough to run out of landfill ahead of schedule, necessitating tough talks about expansion. One solution would be to ship some of their waste across the state to a large private landfill in rural Okeechobee.

“We have a landfill that we’re trying to maximize its lifespan,” Elias said. “And we don’t have that much room in our county to create a new one.”

Growing landfills pose well-documented hazards, such as the formation of methane, a more potent but 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 plaster mixes with bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide gas. In addition to smelling like rotten eggs, the toxic gas can cause headaches and nausea and cause health problems in people with asthma. Many of the largest landfills trap 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.

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

“We know there’s a lot of debris 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 would have to be pushed, pulled, dragged into the water.”

In southwest Florida, Brooker said 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 second place to excavating homes and businesses. Environmentalists fear that, as long as it remains in the water, it could damage seagrass 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 removing “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys left after the storm that continue to ensnare and kill marine animals.

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

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

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