County commissioners voice frustration over lengthy storm debris collection process as staff works with county contractor to secure more crews

County staff also pressing FEMA for the OK to start collections on private roads, with reimbursement from the government a concern

Storm debris lines a street in the unincorporated part of Sarasota County. Rachel Hackney photo

With power restored to residents and businesses, storm debris collection remains the primary concern in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Sarasota County staff and the county commissioners made clear this week.

As of the board’s Sept. 26 regular meeting, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, the county has had three trucks of its own certified to work on collections, and “another six are being mobilized.”

Staff also is hoping that its contractor, CrowderGulf — which has its headquarters in Alabama — will be deploying another 10 trucks “very soon,” he added.

All members of the public want to know is, “‘When’s [my debris] going to get picked up,’” Commissioner Charles Hines told Lewis. “‘Is there a grid? Is there a process. How’s this being done?’”

Lewis reiterated comments Richard Collins, the county’s emergency services director, made in a press briefing on Sept. 22: Because subcontractors can get as much as $18 per cubic yard for storm debris collection in South Florida, crews CrowderGulf had expected to use in Sarasota County kept going south.

Richard Collins addresses members of the news media on Sept. 22 as a debris collection crew works in the background. Image courtesy Sarasota County Government on Facebook

On Sept. 22, Collins explained that the county’s longstanding contract with CrowderGulf called for the county to pay $8 per cubic yard.

The subcontractor issue has proven to be a problem statewide, Lewis pointed out to the County Commission on Sept. 26. “There’s just not enough of ’em …”

Collins learned about the situation during one of his daily conference calls with the Governor’s Office, Lewis explained. As a result of that, Lewis added, Collins has been in contact with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office for help in enforcing contractual obligations.

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked about Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursements for storm debris collection, Lewis explained that, based on advice from the county’s Procurement Department staff, if Sarasota County offers, for example, $20 per cubic yard, “the difference is on us” between that amount and the longstanding county contract for the $8 fee.

Communities in South Florida apparently are willing to take the risk that they can pay higher rates and still get reimbursed by the federal government, he added, though leaders in some communities probably do not understand how the reimbursement process works.

Jonathan Lewis. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Detert replied that she could understand, given the coming tourist season, that the City of Miami, for example, would see it as an economic development imperative “to spend the money to get [the debris] cleaned up faster.”

In an email he sent to County Administrator Tom Harmer just after 7 p.m. on Sept. 26, Collins reported that CrowderGulf had six subcontractor trucks working along with two from the county’s Public Works Department and one from the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.

“Buchan Airport in Englewood is opening [Sept. 27] as a Debris Management Site (DMS),” Collins continued. “[CrowderGulf] is making every effort to deploy ten more trucks to the Buchan Airport DMS site. Staff continues to work with [the county Procurement Department] to locate local contractors as well as actively pursuing the rental of trucks to be operated by county public utilities and public works staff,” Collins added.

As for the areas where collections are underway: Lewis reported to the County Commission that in an effort to speed up the process, staff scheduled the first sweeps in neighborhoods closest to the landfill. Staff also has set up strategic sites for the debris to be deposited to minimize hauling time. The fewer hours trucks spend traveling back and forth to the landfill, he pointed out, the more time crews can put into actually picking up the materials.

Generally, crews have been working in the southern and central portions of the county, Lewis said, but some have been in the Fruitville Road area, as well.

“But they haven’t finished the first sweep yet,” he explained. Even if CrowderGulf brings in another 10 crews, he continued, staff is reluctant to say that a particular area will see a crew at a particular time, because the situation changes day-to-day.

“I just haven’t seen one,” Hines replied, adding, “It helps when the public knows, ‘All right. I think it’s going to be next week.’”

Hines suggested that as staff members learn more details and can firm up crew schedules, they should work with the county’s Communications Department to get the word out to the news media.

“We will continue to push that message,” Lewis replied.

The private roads issue

On a related issue, Lewis explained that staff still was awaiting clearance from FEMA representatives to collect materials on private roads for which the county already has agreements in place to handle that work. “We are poking at them daily to see when we will be will get a response back,” he said of the FEMA representatives. “It’s already been a little bit longer than we had originally anticipated.”

“I hope I misheard you,” Commissioner Alan Maio told Lewis.

Commissioner Alan Maio. Rachel Hackney photo

Many communities that were built decades ago in the county have private roads because that is what the developers wanted at the time, Maio pointed out. “I have no intention of facing my neighbors,” Maio continued, “[to tell] them that their stuff is not getting picked up … This is a firestorm that’s brewing and will be ignited when people learn … we’re still waiting for FEMA approval.”

Fifty percent of the roads in the unincorporated parts of the county are private, Lewis replied. “They’re not necessarily behind gates. They’re just private roads. It’s the potential for a firestorm,” he concurred with Maio, adding, “which is why we’re pushing on it so hard, because we think the need exists.”

Of the approximately 242,000 cubic yards of debris staff estimates is piled up in the county, Lewis noted, about half is on private roads. “We understand the severity of the issue,” he stressed.

When Chair Paul Caragiulo asked how many of the private roads are covered by agreements with the county, Lewis told him about half are. Staff has been reaching out through homeowners’ associations to get more agreements in place, Lewis added.

A long process

Thus far, Lewis reported, more than 3,600 cubic yards of vegetative debris had been collected and brought to the county landfill on Knights Trail Road in Nokomis.

(In an email update to county administrative staff on the night of Sept. 21, Collins reported that the total was 3,645, up from 442 the previous day.)

The county plans to waive the tipping fees for vegetative material at least through Sept. 30, Lewis told the commission on Sept. 26.

Caragiulo suggested that, as that date was only four days away, perhaps the board should direct staff to extend the waiver period. County Administrator Harmer responded that he hoped to have more information later that day to assist in making a decision on the timeline.

A crew collects storm debris in the city of Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Harmer earlier reported that staff was extending its declaration of the State of Emergency for another seven days, as of Sept. 26. Staff can take such action only at seven-day intervals, he added, and maintaining a State of Emergency would facilitate recovery efforts.

Lewis noted that staff’s monitoring of the rate of collections would help determine whether the extension of the waiver should be implemented.

“It seems like we have to acknowledge the scale of this issue,’ Caragiulo pointed out, “and get folks back to whatever normal might look like … I’m not going to be very tolerant of the bureaucratic, regurgitative sort of response [FEMA representatives might provide].”

“I live in the city [of Sarasota],” Caragiulo said, “and I’ll be waiting quite a long time to get that pickup.”

County staff has compiled these ‘Fast Facts’ about Hurricane Irma. Image courtesy Sarasota County

City of Sarasota collections continue

As of Sept. 26, the City of Sarasota was reporting that it had collected 178 loads of storm debris. “Contractors and City crews are working north to south throughout neighborhoods 7 days a week collecting storm debris,” a news release pointed out.

In his Sept. 22 newsletter, City Manager Tom Barwin noted that collections began early that week, “and we expect it will be a lengthy process. The City’s contractor, Ceres Environmental, has multiple crews working simultaneously in different neighborhoods,” he wrote.

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

“While there is no set collection schedule, nine trucks currently are working north to south and as quickly as the large, heavy loads will allow,” he stressed. “We expect it will take 2-3 passes through every neighborhood to pick up all the debris and return Sarasota to its pre-Irma condition,” Barwin continued. “We ask for patience as resources are stretched with so many communities in Florida and the southeast recovering from Irma.”

“Our emergency contract remains in place,” Doug Jeffcoat, the city’s public works director, reported in the Sept. 26 news release. “At this time, no crews or vehicles have left the city limits.”

Since the collection process began on Sept. 18, contractors have collected about 5,700 cubic yards of debris from neighborhoods, the release noted. “In addition, City Public Works crews have collected nearly 1,300 cubic yards of storm debris,” the release added. The total was nearly 7,000 cubic yards, the release noted.

Residents are asked to follow these rules for storm debris collection, the release pointed out:

  • Do not mix household waste, bulk waste or recyclables with storm debris.
  • Place vegetative debris at least 3 to 5 feet away from mailboxes, water meters, street signs, light poles, fire hydrants and trees. “This will provide adequate room for heavy machinery to pick up debris,” the release explains.
  • Do not place debris in the street or on top of storm drains.
  • Do not park vehicles in front of debris.
  • Do not bag debris or place it in containers. Bagged debris will be picked up; however, that may not occur during the first collection cycle.

For a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the storm debris collections, click here.

City of Sarasota residents also are encouraged to use the Hurricane Irma Debris Removal hotline: 855-428-4526.