Regulations, deadline make debris cleanup tougher

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Published: October 31,2005

As of October 17, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 11 million cubic yards of debris caused by Hurricane Katrina had been picked up and disposed of in Mississippi. While that may be an impressive accomplishment, the work is far from complete — the estimate of hurricane-caused debris in Mississippi is 44 million cubic yards.

It is strenuous work, made more difficult by stringent federal regulations set to deter graft and gouging. Add in the fact that the deadline for full reimbursement to local governments for debris removal and disposal by the federal government was fast approaching at press time, and the work is not only tough, but frustrating at times, as well.

Debris or not?

John Perry knows first hand just how difficult and tedious debris cleanup can be. Perry is a principal at the Brookhaven-based engineering firm of Williford Gearheart & Knight (WGK), which holds the contract for debris removal and disposal in Monticello, Osyka, Claiborne County and Amite, La. As of October 18, he estimated that WGK had overseen the removal of between 60,000-70,000 cubic yards of debris.

While Perry’s task is not physically demanding, it can be mentally draining. At one point, WGK had 57 company employees and contract workers on the job. Each crew requires a manager responsible for ensuring that the loading operation meets FEMA’s standards. There is a manager at the drop-off site, who sits in a tower and inspects each truckload as it enters to verify how much debris it contains. Each community requires a manager with supervisory responsibilities for all clean-up in that area. And then one person manages the managers. That would be Perry.

He said WGK’s contract is pretty standard from FEMA. It is to remove eligible debris from public areas and rights-of-way. While that may sound straightforward, FEMA’s definition of “eligible debris” can cause delays and frustration. A classic example is FEMA’s requirements concerning stumps.

“I don’t know why stumps are such a big issue, but they are,” Perry said.

FEMA stipulates that only tree stumps with “one-half of the root ball exposed will be removed.” Obviously, whether a stump meets that requirement or not can be a judgment call. So, who makes that determination? Perry said it is left up to the “experts.”

“If the Corps of Engineers does it, it’s okay,” he said. “If the community or contractor makes that call, they risk being outside FEMA’s requirements and may not be reimbursed for it. It can be a little frustrating. You’re trying to do good faith work, to help.”

While FEMA has had more than one person throw rocks at it for its performance, Perry is not one of them. He said he understood why the regulations were there and were so specific, and finds FEMA personnel to be topnotch.

“It’s not that hard meeting FEMA’s requirements,” he said. “Without the regulations, some would defraud the government. And the folks I’m working with at FEMA are great.”

And Perry was also positive on another aspect of the work — it is work. He said local communities have gotten an economic shot in the arm from the clean-up efforts, communities that are desperately looking to replace lost revenue and tax dollars and are filled with workers just as desperate for a paycheck. He pointed to Osyka, where former New Orleans residents displaced by Katrina have been able to earn a decent wage by working with clean-up crews.

Still, challenges abound in the wake of the unprecedented disaster. For instance, some of WGK’s customers sustained damage that needs repairing. In many cases, the cost of the project is so low that state law does not require it to be bid out. However, FEMA has different requirements, and rather than run into potential problems with the federal government, WGK is letting the work out for bid.

Another challenge is not the amount of debris, but the lack of it. In the hardest hit communities, the debris is everywhere, and it does not take long to get a truckload of it. In other areas, clean-up crews are having to scull around to find enough to haul off. This is the case in Claiborne County, which was west of the storm and not as heavily impacted. Perry said crews in that area were eventually pulled out to work in harder hit areas to expedite the effort and make the use of resources more effective and efficient.

Tick tock

Perry said that, as of October 18, he expected WGK to have completed clean-up and disposal work in both Osyka and Monticello in a week or two. Amite, which has much more debris than the other communities, may take another month. As mentioned previously, Claiborne County is a lower priority, and Perry could not give a timeframe when efforts may wrap up there.

It is important to these communities to get the work completed. At press time, FEMA’s deadline for completion of the clean-up effort was October 28. FEMA was picking up the tab for 100% of the work up until that date. Past that, it would only offer 75% reimbursement, with state and local governments left to split the remaining 25% of the cost between them. For some local governments, this cost could put them in the red.

On October 17, Gov. Haley Barbour said he was optimistic that the federal government would extend the deadline, and that he had been in touch with President George W. Bush about a possible extension. However, there was no commitment that an extension was coming.

Perry said he hoped the deadline was moved out, but understood if the federal government did not make the announcement soon. He said there is a fear, justifiably, that contractors might drag their feet if given more time.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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