Sep. 13, 2017
By Mike Morris Updated 10:47 pm, Tuesday, September 12, 2017
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Houstonians desperate to have their ruined living rooms hauled away before the piles of floorboards, drywall and couch cushions kill their grass can call their elected officials to complain, but may have trouble finding a working number for perhaps the main culprit: Irma, the former hurricane now working its way up the Appalachians.
Many waste contractors who otherwise would have headed for Houston appear to have noted Irma's path and stayed put, hoping to benefit from higher pay and, experts said, an easier type of cleanup in Florida.
The dynamic of competing hurricane recovery zones is complicating what already was expected to be a months-long undertaking to remove mountains of debris from Cypress to Baytown.
In response, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has directed staff to begin negotiating contracts at a higher rate per cubic yard of debris than the $7.69 the city had secured in competitively bid contracts long before Harvey came ashore, in hopes of luring more local trucks into service and, perhaps, draw some to Texas rather than Florida.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is reimbursing 90 percent of local governments' costs for removing storm debris, but could force Houston to foot the full bill for any payments above the city's competitively bid rate. FEMA officials said they are reviewing Turner's request that the extra payments be reimbursed at the same rate, but the mayor said work must proceed quickly even if his request is denied. Turner has cited debris removal costs as one reason he is proposing an emergency one-year tax hike to help fund Harvey recovery efforts.
"We will pay more to get these contractors rolling. I can't wait," Turner said. "Debris removal is the No. 1 priority, and I'm not going to wait to go through the red tape. I'm going to assume the risk."
Patiently waiting, for now Citizens in neighborhoods across Houston last week said they were not bothered that the city had not yet reached their trash heaps, noting the widespread damage wrought by Harvey. There are signs that patience may be wearing thinner, however.
Maryland Whittaker, a civic leader in Lakewood Park in northeast Houston - where endless rows of debris soaked with Halls Bayou floodwaters line the streets - said she cannot fault waste contractors for seeking better pay, and backed the mayor's plan to pay more to speed up the work.
"It's still 90 percent not picked up. The odor is beginning to get to us and a lot of the streets are still impassable," Whittaker said. "And what they're doing is sending dump trucks, private contractors, so they're cleaning up a little bit but their dump trucks don't hold much. We still need the big trucks out."
Irma's landfall in Florida on Sunday is the reason Whittaker is seeing so few gargantuan debris haulers, said Kurt Thormahlen, general manager of DRC Emergency Services, the debris removal contractor for the city and Harris County.
DRC acts as a coordinator, subcontracting nearly all storm response from independent truckers around the country. Thormahlen estimated there are about 300 self-loaders in the country - those operating mechanical claws to pick up debris and deposit it in truckbeds and attached trailers - who typically draw their incomes from the timber industry in the Carolinas, Arkansas, Tennesse, Missouri and northern Alabama.
"Normally, a storm the size of Harvey would muster all the assets - especially what we consider the big boys, the self-loaders - bring them straight down here and they'd be working," he said. "Well, with Hurricane Irma, they're sitting and waiting, also because it's closer to home."
Harder debris to collect
Harris County Engineer John Blount noted that, in contrast to the downed limbs produced by Hurricane Ike a decade ago - which were easy to load, haul and grind into mulch - Harvey's floodwaters have produced bulky construction and demolition debris, all of which must be trucked to area landfills.
Blount, who said more than 64,000 cubic yards of debris had been sent to local landfills from unincorporated Harris County as of midnight Monday, said he has heard of hours-long waits for truckers to unload debris. Those factors make lower debris removal rates even less attractive to truckers, he said.
"Traditionally, this region has got a substantially better rate on debris removal than the rest of the country," Blount said. "What that tells you is, if there's an event somewhere and we're traditionally paying less, there's less of an incentive to drive down here."
Thormahlen echoed that, saying Irma also has produced mostly downed tree limbs and other "vegetative" debris, he said, which are quicker to load and easier on haulers' equipment. Only about 80 of the country's 300 enormous self-loaders are operating in Houston, Thormahlen said, plus 120 smaller trucks. He said he has been impressed with the ingenuity of gravel haulers who have never loaded construction and demolition debris before, but that does not make up for a lack of hauling capacity.
"I have no reservations about being able to keep the trucks we have here, but (Turner's proposed rate) increase would definitely help," he said. "You have a finite number of large trucks, but if we can start bringing the smaller trucks on and they can make money doing that, you're able to supply a lot of these guys who are local."
When Councilman Larry Green said last week that local truckers had told him the city's debris rates did not allow them to turn a profit as subcontractors, Turner initially was reluctant to step outside of FEMA procurement rules. Instead, he said, his administration was signing mutual aid agreements with other Texas cities to make up the deficit, such as by sending San Antonio city waste crews into Kingwood last weekend.
"We simply don't want to do things where we don't get reimbursed, because we're talking about a $200 million deal and we don't want to be stuck with a bill at the end," the mayor said, referring to the city's preliminary estimate of what the debris removal effort will cost.
Upping the offer to get the service
By Monday, however, Turner had directed his legal department to begin negotiating debris contracts at higher rates than those produced through the competitive bidding process. Nottingham Forest civic leader Katie Mehnert said speeding debris removal would help her "keep the peace" among her neighbors on the hard-hit westside. Flooding at two area sewage treatment plants has many residents worried that their debris piles are infused with raw sewage, along with the other contaminants from flooded Buffalo Bayou.
"The biggest concern right now is when are they going to get here and do we have a health problem," she said. "If it were me, I'd be looking at the city and saying, 'Where do we have potential health and safety concerns?' and prioritizing trash removal from those areas. It just makes for a more toxic situation."