John Doherty, New York Department of Sanitation’s 74-year-old commissioner, has lived his whole life in New York City and has worked for the department for more than 50 years. But last fall’s historic Superstorm Sandy made an impression on even this seasoned veteran.
“This was the worst natural disaster I’ve seen in my lifetime as a New Yorker,” Doherty says. “Nobody anticipated we’d see anything like this.”
The storm hit the entire eastern seaboard of the United States in late October but did the most severe damage to the heavily populated areas of New York City and New Jersey. Damage estimates in the United States exceed $60 billion.
Moreover, it left an enormous amount of waste debris to be managed. Doherty says the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has collected 390,000 tons of debris caused by Sandy, and expects that figure to exceed 400,000 tons before they’re done. In Atlantic City workers gathered more than 4,500 tons, says Paul Jerkins, public works director for the city. In New Jersey the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) put the overall debris estimate at 6.5 million cubic yards, a figure that might be soft due to massive tree damage in the northern part of the state, says Larry Ragonese, press director for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
“There was more vegetative waste in one day than there usually is in a year,” he says. “We’ve never seen anything like that. It looks like a giant just uprooted the trees.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which assists FEMA in emergency response, reports that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nearly 115,000 individual containers of household hazardous waste was collected overall, and about 400,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris, about two-thirds of which has been chipped for beneficial reuse, says Craig Coombs, environmental engineer with the Army Corps.
“It was an event we had prepared for, but you couldn’t prepare for it,” Ragonese says.
Doherty said in January that the bulk of the cleanup was done in New York City. But residents and businesses are doing ongoing renovation as a result of the storm, which means more waste generation. He expected the cleanup to take another month.
In Atlantic City Jerkins is seeing much the same situation. They’re still picking up household debris in areas that were submerged under three and a half to four feet of water. The primary tourist areas represented by the boardwalk and the casinos weren’t impacted, but a more remote stretch of the boardwalk that was damaged still needs to be cleaned up.