In most towns, solid waste personnel have collection down to a science. Thanks to well-planned routes, sophisticated geographical information systems and other technology, and the work of experienced staff, curbside collection of waste and yard debris usually runs like clockwork.

Unfortunately, sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. Hurricanes, blizzards, heavy rains, and other severe weather events can gum up an otherwise smooth collection operation and make a mess of things. However, according to Roger W. Flint, director of public works and utilities for Spokane, Wash., a disaster is no excuse for slacking off—especially in the eyes of your constituents.

“The short of it is, you have to be able to respond to both the disaster you're faced with and manage day-to-day activities,” he said. “The public relies upon you to get basic infrastructure opened up and available after a disaster. People don't have a lot of tolerance for delays—the trash has to be picked up.”

In addition to regular curbside collection, disasters can snarl your municipality's streets and roads with tree branches, trash, and other materials. All of this has to be dealt with to prevent traffic headaches, health risks, and phone calls from disgruntled citizens who want the trash and materials taken away—now. The nature of your response depends on the type and severity of the disaster.


In Spokane, as in many other municipalities, responding to a storm or other natural disaster requires teamwork and a step up in manpower.

“We occasionally have big ice storms and other severe events,” said Flint. “In such cases, our regular crews still do their normal jobs, although they might work overtime to start debris removal. We might augment our emergency response with contracted crews, such as demolition and debris haulers, and companies that bring in tub grinders.”

Flint has worked for the city for more than 20 years, including approximately six years in his current position. Even before his tenure with Spokane, he remembers the city's response to a particularly difficult challenge.

“When Mount St. Helens blew [in 1980], that was a huge mess to deal with,” he said. “Crews had to be pulled in from other departments to clean debris and clear storm drains. People teamed together to deal with it.”

A brutal ice storm struck Spokane in 1996, bringing power outages that lasted nearly a week in parts of the city. Huge tree branches littered roads, parking lots, and major streets. In addition, citizens were faced with mountains of debris they needed to dispose of. Flint said the city's response included setting up temporary drop-off sites in stadium parking lots and outside a transfer station, enabling the city to efficiently handle the debris load—three times the normal amount they would normally process—and get the city back to normal.


According to Rick Person, program administrator of solid waste and recycling for St. Paul, Minn., severe weather does not often affect the timeliness of waste or recyclable collection in his city. “In the rare blizzard condition, which might last two to three days, normal collection would resume in three or four days,” said Person.