WHEN DISASTERS STRIKE, a community's first call might not be to a waste company. However, maybe it should be, as several haulers have proved during recent hurricanes and floods.

Take, for example, the four hurricanes that struck Florida between August and September 2004. Florida-based waste management firms played key roles in the disaster response and recovery efforts assembled in the wake of the storms. In Palm Beach County alone, waste management firms picked up 3.5 million cubic yards of hurricane debris. Ft. Lauderdale-based Republic Services Inc. collected about 500,000 cubic yards. Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston, picked up about 1.75 million cubic yards. A host of other waste management firms, including Onyx Waste Services and Phillips and Jordan, also contributed to the Palm Beach County cleanup.

The waste companies' assistance in dealing with the magnitude and timing of those storms have altered the way Florida will conduct future disaster cleanups.

Three of the 2004 storms — Charley, Ivan and Frances — rank as the second-, third- and fourth-most costly hurricanes in United States history. Only Hurricane Andrew cost more. That 1992 storm caused $30 billion in property damage.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Charley and Ivan cost $14 billion each; Frances cost $9 billion; and Jeanne cost $6.9 billion. Together, the four storms ran-up a staggering $44 billion in property damage. As much as 90 percent of the damage occurred to Florida properties.

First, Take Care of Yourself

Among the first lessons waste companies learned during the storms was to make sure their businesses are safe. You can't help others if your systems aren't working properly, they say.

Hurricanes Charley and Ivan grazed Palm Beach County, passing largely to the north of the southern Florida coastal community. But Frances and Jeanne struck the county head-on.

On Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2004, word arrived from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that Frances would hit the county. Frances would eventually blanket the entire state, with winds ranging across a corridor 145 miles wide. A Category 2 storm, she had 105 miles per hour (mph) winds.

The real problem with Frances, however, was the achingly slow 6 mph speed at which she lumbered across Florida. Most hurricanes come in go in a day or so. Frances pummeled Florida for 60 hours, or two and one-half days.

On Saturday, the day before Frances reached land, residents and businesses made final preparations.

At Sunburst Sanitation, the Palm Beach division of Republic, employees sealed the facility's computers in plastic bags and covered the desks and tables with plastic tarps. Outside, drivers parked a portion of the division's 72 route trucks in a tight circle around the two-story building, in hopes of protecting the lower story from flying debris.

During the preceding five days, the office had stocked up on water, dry foods, batteries and flashlights. Those supplies would be used by people working on cleanup after the hurricane and also by families of employees who might need help after the storm.

In the maintenance yard, employees topped off the facility's 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tank, enough to fuel the collection fleet for four to six days. Extra supplies of gasoline for the cars and pickup trucks also were laid in.

Finally, Dave Unversaw, Sunburst's general manager, turned off the electricity and went home. “At this point, we were preparing ourselves to withstand the hurricane,” he says. “You can't start the cleanup until after the storm.”

By the following Wednesday, the rain and wind had abated and Unversaw returned to the office. “We had relatively little property damage,” he says, “but the yard in back was flooded, and we had to move some of our pickup trucks out of standing water.”

Worse, the storm knocked out the power and strewn power lines across the front entrance roads, making them impassable. Fortunately, the facility had generators to make its own power.

The biggest facility-related problem was access. Because of the downed power lines, trucks had to make their way in and out of the facility over a maze of dirt (now mud) roads running from the back maintenance yard and winding around to the main roads.

The Cleanup

Palm Beach County and other Florida counties do not typically contract trash haulers to cleanup after hurricanes. They rely on companies that specialize in disaster cleanup. But after Frances, Florida found the cleanup specialists were by and large still involved in cleaning up after Hurricane Charley.

“Equipment and crews managed by cleanup specialists were scattered throughout the southeastern U.S.,” Unversaw says. “After Frances, when Palm Beach County officials could not get a response from the specialists, they called in the major haulers in the area and asked what we could do to help.”

The major companies working in the area, including Onyx, Republic and WM, submitted proposals, received contracts, and went to work.

Each company committed equipment, materials and people to the cleanup. After Hurricane Charley, for example, Republic brought more than 110 people to Florida from its offices around the country. Those people were working out of offices in Jacksonville and Orlando. Within a week of signing a contract with the county, they were out on cleanup jobs.

“In a hurricane cleanup, the county directs and prioritizes the work,” Unversaw says. “After Frances, Palm Beach County said that garbage pickup was the priority, given its importance to health and safety. The county also told us to put vegetation pickup aside for a specializing contractor and to hold up on recycling for the time being, so we handled garbage first. After that, the focus switched to debris, which … might include vegetation — downed trees, for example.”

Unversaw's 72 rear loaders handled the garbage pickups, while nine self-loading clam trucks with 25-yard bodies handled debris. “We also brought in more equipment from Republic offices, and in some cases, subcontracted with others to provide services,” Unversaw says.

Garbage, construction and demolition (C&D) materials, and hazardous materials went to landfills, while general debris went to one of a dozen or so staging areas set up throughout the county. Temporarily, it was more important to get debris off the streets rather than to a final resting place in a landfill.

One week later, NOAA warned that Hurricane Jeanne appeared to be approaching Florida's Atlantic coast. “We had just gotten power back in our office when we had to start all over and get ready for Jeanne,” Unversaw says.

Jeanne was a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph winds. It rolled through Florida on basically the same track as Frances. The good news was the speed at which Jeanne moved — 12 mph — was about twice as fast as Frances.

“Jeanne was more powerful but much faster, and was gone in a couple of hours,” Unversaw says. “Still, Jeanne finished off a lot of damage that Frances started.”

When the weather cleared, the haulers picked up on their cleanup contracts where they had left off before Jeanne. Now, it appears that Florida haulers have become part of the emergency cleanup teams that will form in Florida in the aftermath of any hurricane.

Floods Can Be Worse

In late September 1999, Thomas Winstead, vice president of Raleigh, N.C.-based Waste Industries, sat in his car on a high hill in Edgecombe County talking on the radio and watching the slow, sickening rise of floodwaters caused by days and days of rain from Hurricane Floyd.

Telephone systems and mobile phone towers were out. Two-way radio was the only way to communicate, but those had a limited range.

So Winstead stationed himself atop a centrally located hill and turned himself into a human repeater. He relayed information back and forth among Waste Industries' nine branch locations and corporate offices in Raleigh. All told, those offices were spread over 27 counties affected by the flood.

“I never saw anything like this before in my life,” Winstead says. “I hope never to see anything like it again.”

The flooding cut off electricity across the region, a problem that persisted for weeks and caused food in restaurants, grocery stores and homes to spoil. The transportation network was gone, and the main landfill could not be accessed. Trucks had to move waste to a landfill 100 miles further away. “Where we ordinarily had an hour's trip to a landfill, it could take 10 hours to move one load during the flood,” Winstead says.

Priorities, according to Winstead, included picking up household and commercial wastes. Household wastes built up at the region's convenience centers, where residents typically delivered their weekly refuse. Winstead estimates that the volume of wastes flowing into these centers tripled. The volume of food wastes from commercial and institutional sources also tripled. There also were dead farm animal carcasses that had to be buried or burned.

Winstead created a makeshift waste collection and disposal system that held up throughout a 58-day state of emergency, lasting from September through November 1999. After that, the situation improved. But the cleanup took 18 months and lasted until mid-2001.

Because of Hurricane Floyd, Waste Industries set up a permanent emergency response team, called RRED ONE (Rapid Response and Emergency Deployment for Operational Needs and Expertise). “We formed this group about three years ago to deal with floods being experienced in eastern North Carolina,” says Harry Habets, chief operating officer.

The RRED ONE team includes five branch managers, 10 supervisors and 20 drivers. The company also regularly holds eight roll-off trucks in reserve for emergency uses. As offices around the company need help in managing a disaster, they can request a relief team. Headquarters then will create a team of RRED ONE members close to the trouble spot.

Each branch has an emergency preparedness plan as well. The plans include maps of cities served, plus the surrounding area, names and phone numbers of health care agencies, material testing facilities and subcontractors that might be needed. The plan also includes emergency hotel arrangements and cash advances. The plan is kept at the ready for arriving RRED ONE teams.

Getting Paid

While cleaning up after disasters seems like a natural task for waste companies to tackle, documenting finances during a disaster to comply with city, county, state and federal guidelines may not be as intuitive. Companies responding to disasters must be careful about financial matters during emergency cleanups, Habets cautions. “This kind of work costs an arm and a leg, and it can be difficult to get paid. Documentation is critical. If you have good records, you still only have a good chance of collecting.”

David Katz, area director of governmental affairs with Republic, agrees that following procedures will give a waste company no more than a good chance of getting paid. Problems arise from federal and state reimbursement formulas for municipalities, he explains.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) reimburses cities for certain costs. So do state emergency management administrations. By following procedures, a city can be reimbursed for 90 percent to 95 percent of its emergency expenses by various emergency management administrations. “But the cities have to understand the rules and file the right paperwork,” Katz says. “During the first 72 hours of a hurricane clean up, FEMA will reimburse a municipality on an hourly basis. After 72 hours, it will only reimburse on a volume basis. So the recordkeeping has to change. I've had bills thrown out because they presented hourly charges and not volumes after the initial 72 hours.”

Winstead says that he is still waiting for FEMA reimbursement payments on bills sent to municipalities after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Nevertheless, most officials agree that disaster cleanup jobs are more about public service than profits. “We're in business to make money for shareholders,” Habets says. “At the same time, we need to make a coordinated effort with well-trained people. So you have to do what is necessary, while being careful not to overextend yourself.”

Winstead sums up his take on disaster cleanup: “It's organized chaos, and you have to do your best to get paid for what you do.”

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.