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After Harvey, another mammoth challenge for flooded areas: getting rid of trash

A digger sits on top of a growing city-run debris pile filled with water-damaged items, from mattresses to sheetrock, in Port Arthur on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune)

by Ala'a Ibrahim | The Texas Tribune

In Houston and dozens of other Gulf Coast towns, piles of once-cherished belongings, flood-soaked sheetrock and furniture are everywhere, gathered in isolated pockets outside apartment complexes and behind bricked subdivision walls in long lines that snake along street after street.

And there’s no telling how long these piles of trash will sit as decaying reminders of how far Southeast Texas has to go as it crawls through its recovery, three weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding.

“The neighborhood is a disaster,” said Reyna Martinez, who lives in the Aldine area of north Houston and is learning to operate within this new normal. “The trash is outside, and the city has done nothing yet about it.”

The higher the pile, the higher the flood waters got in the house. And in those piles are years' worth of memories.

“Baby pictures, wedding pictures, hereditary documents, family Bibles from generations ago,” said Harry Hayes, Director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department. “Just treasures of a lifetime that are gone.”

Some people are paying contractors to haul the debris away. But most are waiting for the city to remove it.

Martinez said she and her family watch the garbage trucks pass by twice a week, but their piles of waste remain untouched.

“I don't know what's happening,” she said. “Nobody gave information about it. I don't know when they'll start to clean this area.”

Hayes, who is leading the debris removal effort in Houston, said the cleanup process could take three to six months, even with help from other Texas cities that have sent their own garbage trucks and city employees to speed things up.

“We've got our contractors working,” Hayes said. “We've got our city forces working. We have your city of Austin working down here with us. The city of San Antonio. We expect the city of Dallas to join soon.”

Hayes said Houston’s debris removal plan includes dividing the city into 16 zones, which are then divided into 256 sub zones. Within those sub zones are two to three neighborhoods. The city decides which neighborhoods to enter first by assessing the level of damage and accessibility. After pickup, the trash is dumped into local landfills, which officials say have plenty of room left.

Hayes led the post-Hurricane cleanup after Ike hit Houston in 2008. But he says this hurricane is much different. He’s never seen such an outpouring of emotion.

“People have lost lifetimes of memories,” he said. “It's very emotional to go through this with folks. I've had people cry with me.”

Kurt Thormahlen, vice president of DRC Emergency Services — a company contracted by Houston to collect Harvey debris — said the amount of debris is unprecedented for his 24-year-old company, which is making it a slow process even with his employees working seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner voiced his concerns about the pace of the cleanup at a press conference last week. He said he is doing what he can to expedite the process.

"It is unacceptable for me for this debris to be on the ground that long,” Turner said.

Part of reason it’s taking so long is because of prolonged waits to dump materials at landfills, which means the trucks collecting the debris can make fewer trips in a day. In addition, Turner said some subcontractors chose to go to Florida, hoping to find better pay as that state cleans up from Hurricane Irma’s devastation.

Houston initially agreed to pay a contractor $7.96 per cubic yard of removed debris, but Turner said the city had to bump the payment to $11.69 per cubic yard after subcontractors complained that the original payment was too low.

In addition to Houston’s efforts, the Texas Department of Transportation has sent its own equipment and crews. As of Wednesday, the agency has removed 432,000 cubic feet of debris from the city and county roads, according to a press release from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. That’s enough to cover eight football fields.

Houston is just one of many places flooded by Harvey that are dealing with a massive debris removal problem. In Port Arthur, Omar and Tami Pinkney’s home was spared, but the mountain of debris across the street continues to grow.

Tami, a nurse, worries that the dust could be filled with fiberglass and asbestos particles, noting that most of the neighborhood contains older homes. She said she doesn’t want her grandchildren to play outside when they visit.

"It’s just not right,” she said. “This is not safe. It’s just not safe."

Thormahlen, the DRC Emergency Services vice president, said piles of waste can be hazardous if left out long enough. The Houston Press reported that debris piles can be magnets for mold, mosquitoes and diseases. That’s why Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department is asking residents to move all debris from inside their homes to the curb as soon as possible.

In Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, Steve Beisert doesn’t seem too worried about when the debris will be picked up. He said several neighbors and random strangers helped him and his wife make the pile during the 10 days it took to clear out his mother-in-law’s house on Ferris Drive.

For him, the pile represents an impromptu sense of community.

“You know,” he said, “they will, in time, get it.”

Additional reporting by Brandon Formby in Houston and Morgan Smith in Port Arthur

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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