Florida grapples with a mountain of debris from Hurricane Ian

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Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida’s coast, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than 100 people, state and local governments are struggling to know what to do with a staggering amount of debris from the storm .

There are mountains of trash at dozens of temporary sites across the state, filled with fallen trees, moldy carpets, soggy drywall and other household items destroyed by the storm. Over the past seven weeks, state officials estimate crews have cleared about 20.4 million cubic feet of debris.

Millions more remain. Statewide, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have left behind 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 City — and enough to fill the Empire State Building 22 times.

Cleanup efforts in 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 that Florida hasn’t seen in a long time,” said Jon Paul Brooker, the Ocean Conservancy’s director of Florida conservation. “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 only got more daunting after Hurricane Nicole hit the east coast of Florida as a Category 1 hurricane on Nov. 10. State officials said they do not yet have a damage estimate from the hurricane.

After Ian, Florida’s waterways could be polluted for months

Hauling away storm-related trash has become a daunting routine for communities in the path of hurricanes. After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida in 2017, wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys and causing about two-thirds of the state’s residents to lose power, nearly 29 million cubic feet of debris remained statewide, according to Army Corps estimates. The following year, Hurricane Michael created nearly 33 million cubic feet. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, burdened several states with more than 100 million cubic feet of debris.

Scientists predict that the number of costly and deadly disasters will increase as rising sea levels and warming waters, fueled by climate change, cause hurricanes to rapidly strengthen before making landfall. Research shows that debris, toxic chemicals and bacteria spread by disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires are exposing people to physical harm.

For now, experts are asking a more immediate question, said Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida: “Where are we going to find room for all of this?”

Each state varies in how it handles such cleanups. In Florida, government officials are hiring contractors to collect waste — at a cost largely reimbursed by FEMA — and take it to temporary waste management sites. From there, some of the storm debris will be taken to municipal landfills and some will be hauled across the state to private landfills.

Florida poses particular challenges due to its shallow water table and potential for makeshift landfills of leaching contaminants into groundwater. This is one reason why local officials are likely to face questions about the environmental and public health effects of their decisions.

In Lee County, where Ian landed and left a trail of destruction in his wake, local officials have decided to reopen a landfill to get rid of storm debris quickly. The Gulf Coast landfill was closed 15 years ago at the urging of nearby residents, who had bought their homes on the promise that the landfill would close and stay closed. Now the county’s plan is to allow the landfill to remain open, temporarily, as a disaster debris site.

Residents are concerned about the landfill’s resurgence, as are at least one county commissioner, Cecil Pendergrass, who told a local CBS affiliate he fears the effects on air quality and potential water contamination. “There will be an outflow from that exposure,” he said.

Even where local sites are available, some officials are concerned 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 building boom came more waste.

They were drawn to the Florida dream. After Ian they ask themselves: what now?

John Elias, the director of public works for Charlotte County, estimated that Hurricane Ian left behind 2.5 million cubic feet of debris in the county alone, enough for the county to run out of space. landfill ahead of schedule, forcing difficult conversations about whether to expand. One solution would be to ship some of their debris across the state to a large private landfill in rural Okeechobee.

“We have a landfill that we’re trying to maximize the life of,” Elias said. “And we don’t have a lot of room in our county to make a new one.”

Growing landfills pose well-documented dangers, such as the generation of methane, a more potent, though shorter-lived, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But building up on storm debris can cause further problems.

Townsend said that 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 for people with asthma. Many of the larger landfills capture this and other harmful gases in collection systems. A spokesman for Waste Management, which operates the Gulf Coast landfill, said it has such a system in place.

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

“There’s a lot of debris that we know is in the water that we can’t see,” said Jason Rolfe, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. “Everything that was on land, you should expect to be pushed, pulled, dragged through the water.”

In southwest Florida, Brooker said the 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 a back seat to excavating homes and businesses. Conservationists fear that as it remains in the water, it could damage algae 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 working to remove “ghost” lobster traps in the Keys that were abandoned after the storm and continue to trap and kill marine animals.

In Bay County, Florida, which suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Michael, officials said they had pulled debris and dozens of stranded boats out of their waters since the storm hit four years ago. In total, they estimate they have removed £2.4m from their bays. They officially ended their efforts this fall, but the battle continues.

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

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