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Dealing with disaster

Dealing with disaster

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Laurence Letellier worked closely with local government agencies, FEMA, and power companies to efficiently clean up after two back-to-back hurricanes in September 2004.

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Gregory A. Frink (left), and Reginald Willis Sr. from the Marion County Code Enforcement Department had to carefully assess the debris removal in the right of way. They investigated and documented illegally dumped debris from the hurricanes.

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Employees at the Emergency Operations Center worked together to coordinate incoming calls about flooding, debris, and downed power lines. Planning ahead for an event like a hurricane can help centers like this run smoothly.

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    Photo: Laurence Letellier

    Removing trees and other debris from the right of way fell to the public works department.

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    Photos: Laurence Letellier (left) and Todd Anderson/Black Star (right)

    Burning debris (left) and chipping debris (right) were used to eliminate vegetative debris. Burning is generally cheaper than grinding due to the need to haul away and dispose of the chips.

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    Photo: Laurence Letellier

    Although Marion County is landlocked, flooding was a problem, especially for emergency crews trying to get through.

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    Photo: Thompson Pump

    This shows one of 10 permanent Thompson Pump emergency backup pumps used by Regional Utilities in Walton County, Fla. The pumps are equipped with automatic start/stop systems.

Coordination With Power Companies

A major issue with a hurricane is that above-ground electrical infrastructure sustains heavy damage. Fallen trees with entangled power lines obstruct many roads. Good communication with the power companies is needed to help prioritize power disconnects so tree-clearing crews can reopen blocked roads.

We have four power companies that serve different parts of our county. This was a challenge since we got varying degrees of cooperation from each company—one provided no communication at all. Another actually partnered some of their electric crews with the county's road-clearing crews to expedite the process of opening up the roads in the first eight hours after the storm passed. We are now working on commitments from each power company to dedicate a few crews to work directly with our initial road-opening crews during the first 24 hours following the all-clear.

We ran into another power-company-related problem after the storms passed. We found power companies performing maintenance trimming along their lines and dropping the debris in the right of way. Since disposal of this debris was not eligible for reimbursement through FEMA, we quickly put a stop to this practice.

The Problem of Flooding

Flooding is another major issue with a hurricane, and we experienced it even in our land-locked county. Hurricane Frances brought us 11 inches of rain and then 2 ½ weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne dumped another 6 inches. This led to severe flooding in some parts of the county, and the EOC had to dispatch fire-rescue teams to assist people trapped by floods.

Public works crews dealt with flooded roads in a number of ways: they placed barricades, established detours, and set up pumps in areas where appropriate (see the Thompson Pump sidebar, page 28 for an example of how another Florida community responded to flooding). Additionally, drainage division staff members inventoried flood sites to study ways of alleviating this problem for future events. Our use of spreadsheets helped keep these efforts organized.

Debris Collection and Disposal

Once we completed the initial push to open roads, the next major challenge was debris pickup and disposal. In our case, we ended up with more than 900,000 cubic yards. To put this in perspective, it would be like covering a football field with debris stacked 540 feet high—equivalent to the height of a 45-story building.

In-house forces, an emergency services contractor, or a combination of the two can perform debris collection. FEMA guidelines and interpretation dictates which expenses are eligible for reimbursement. Generally, the work during the first 72 hours following the event is reimbursable at 100% regardless of which method is used. After that, only equipment and overtime costs are reimbursable for in-house debris pickup. The percentage of costs reimbursable after the initial 72-hour period is usually 75% by FEMA at the federal level. In our case, FEMA upped their participation to 90% while the state of Florida picked up 5%, leaving the local governments responsible for the remaining 5%.

Properly trained monitors are required with each debris collection crew as well as at each reduction site. Monitors must not allow crews to pick up from private property nor allow pickup of ineligible debris. They must be forceful and not sign load tickets unless the crew has followed the rules. We initially had monitors with a technical background supplied by engineering firms. They were accustomed to monitoring similar work and had little problem enforcing the rules.

Later, however, after FEMA made an issue of the cost of monitors, we began using workers from a temporary employee services agency. This was a problem for several reasons. Some of the new monitors were not assertive with the crews. Some were inattentive to their responsibilities. We found it imperative to convey the mission to monitors clearly through uniform training and daily reinforcement. Spot checks were necessary to insure adherence to policies and to prevent kickbacks. There must be a policy to dismiss offending monitors quickly.

Debris falls into two basic categories—vegetative, and construction and demolition (C&D). Vegetative debris from trees involves tree limbs, trunks, and stumps. Private property owners must place debris curbside in the public right of way, and debris must be at least 2 inches in diameter and 2 feet long to be eligible for reimbursement from FEMA.