Every disaster is unique. There are common issues that are instructive for every city or company dealing with the waste management component of a tragedy, natural or man-made. But each event is a separate story.
The following is a look at three of the highest profile disasters in the United States in the past decade: The tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011, Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans in 2005 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon in 2001. Waste officials talk about what they learned and offer hints about how to be as ready as possible when the unexpected arrives.
Joplin is a town of about 50,000 in southwest Missouri. Route 66 runs through it. Bonnie and Clyde spent time there. And on May 22 of 2011, an EF5 tornado, the strongest category of twisters, came to town, leaving 160 casualties and more than $2 billion in property damage in its wake.
The city was not completely unprepared according to Tim Nyander, public works operations manager for Joplin. Officials had recent experience dealing with two ice and two wind storms. “We were prepared for a big one, but nothing like what we got,” says Nyander.
Joplin was experienced with vegetative debris (trees, shrubs and other woody plants uprooted in the storm), but the aftermath of this tornado involved a lot of construction and demolition (C&D) debris and white goods — and a sizable volume of trash in general. All told, Nyander says the tornado generated 3 million cubic yards of waste.
A week after the tornado hit, Joplin officials instructed residents to separate their debris and place it on the curb. The U.S.(EPA) came in with a contractor to pick up the separated waste and take it to a staging area where it was prepared for recycling or disposal, separating materials like food and Freon.
The tally of the debris collected in Joplin included 156 tons of electronic waste, 257 tons of white goods, 57 tons of household hazardous waste, 80 tons of general non-hazardous material, 212 25-pound propane cylinders, 250 pounds of refrigerants, two drums of sharps and 400 cubic yards of ground up vegetative debris.
“There was a lot more that could have been recycled,” Nyander says, but they were facing a deadline from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for maximum reimbursement. Up until Aug. 7 FEMA would pay 90 percent; after that date the amount fell to 75 percent.
And contrary to his experiences following other disasters, Nyander says the EPA actually generated local revenue: The agency made $46,000 selling white goods to a Joplin-based company.
One of the biggest challenges for the Joplin workers was clearing roads of debris. In the first 10 hours they cleared a single lane to allow for emergency vehicles. In the next 24 hours they staged their equipment in three locations to assist with search and rescue. “The emergency crews wanted us to hold off moving or removing debris while they continued to search for victims,” he says.
During the first three days the crews went curb-to-curb clearing debris and restoring the right of way, hauling away 980 dump truck loads of material. “We’re proud we got it done in 72 hours,” he says.
They also had to deal with “scrappers” (people collecting scrap for resale) and looters. Police handled that issue initially. “Farther in, we allowed scrappers along the right of ways,” he says.
The scale of the human element of the tragedy was a unique challenge for the workers. Many people were unaccounted for. Nyander says they spent three weeks on search and rescue before being able to really devote the department’s full resources to clean up. “It was something we hadn’t thought about.”
And it’s something the workers had to handle with sensitivity. “You’re dealing with people that just went through a traumatic event. We needed to be supportive of that,” he says.
Planning is a big part of Nyander’s advice. “Preparation is the key. We did a pretty good job given the circumstances.” One advantage of Joplin’s multiple experiences with disasters is that they now have an emergency operations center.
He suggests waste handlers formalize and keep current the list of facilities that can be used — transfer stations, recycling facilities, hazardous waste centers. “We need to have good documentation of facilities on hand,” says Nyander. “Take notes on the cleanup. Document what you do.”
A smaller city of course has its own challenges. Nyander that there were 110 sister crews from adjacent jurisdictions that came to help when the call went out for assistance, and that they were “a saving grace.” Joplin didn’t have to rely on formal mutual aid agreements.
The cleanup still isn’t complete, however. Officials continue to process the remaining debris and have been tasked with removing foundations for buildings that are determined to be unsalvageable. Nyander says he hopes to complete tornado-related work early this year; the debris removal portion of it, anyway.
“The rebuilding will probably last a lifetime," he says.