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A Month After Hurricane Irma, Florida Cities Are Still Struggling to Clean Up

Local governments and private contractors can't find enough people and equipment to haul away debris.

A resident walks by a pile of debris caused by a storm surge during Hurricane Irma in Everglades City, Fla.
(AP/Alan Diaz)
It’s been nearly a month since Hurricane Irma battered Florida, but localities there are still struggling with one of the most basic tasks of recovery: the clean-up.

Companies that cities contracted with before hurricane season have struggled to meet the huge demand in Florida, where two-thirds of the counties in the state are covered by disaster declarations. With high demand and short supply for debris haulers, local governments often find themselves competing with each other for service. Big players including Miami-Dade County and the Florida Department of Transportation raised the rates they’re paying waste haulers, which siphoned off workers who might otherwise have helped clean-up efforts in the rest of the state.

That puts other governments in a tight spot: Do they raise their rates, too? And, if they do, can they afford to compete with bigger agencies, especially when they don’t know whether the federal government will reimburse them for the higher rates?

Daniel Stermer, the mayor of Weston, a wealthy suburb near Fort Lauderdale, says the wide swath of damage makes it harder for anyone to attract enough workers. The debris haulers often come from out of state, and travel across the country in the wake of disasters. Many of them went to Texas to clean up after Hurricane Harvey a week before Irma pummeled Florida and Georgia. Irma’s huge trail of destruction further spread out the people and equipment that responded.

But there’s not much cities can do about it, says Stermer, who is the Broward County League of Cities' point person on debris removal. “What are we going to do? Go to court?” he says. “That’s not going to fix the problem today. Everybody wants it done, and they want it done yesterday.”

That said, the Florida attorney general’s office is investigating at least three waste-hauling companies to determine whether they tried to gouge cities by raising their rates after the hurricane hit.

Attorney General Pat Bondi sent the companies subpoenas as part of an investigation into allegations that the contractors are not doing work for the rates they negotiated before the storm, are holding off on doing work until they can negotiate higher rates or are responding slowly for their contract work.

“Sitting debris is a health and safety hazard and needs to be removed as soon as possible – but instead of doing their jobs and helping Floridians recover, apparently some contractors are delaying the work or requesting higher rates,” Bondi said in a statement.

Another big source of frustration for Florida city officials? The high concentration of gated communities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a long-standing policy that it won’t reimburse cities for the cost of removing debris from private property, including gated communities.

That's a problem, says Stermer, the Weston mayor. Most of his city, in fact, is made up of gated communities. The public roads look great, he says, but the situation in gated communities varies widely. Some homeowners associations have used their reserve funds to pay for clean-up, but others are still waiting to see whether the city will do it. Weston, like more than 40 other cities in Broward County, has applied for a waiver to FEMA’s policy but has not yet heard back on whether they’ll get it.

Federal law only allows FEMA to reimburse local governments for debris removal on private property under limited circumstances, such as to eliminate life-threatening conditions, mitigate property damage or to help the community as a whole with its economic recovery.

“In terms of gated communities, it is something that typically has not been a function that has been performed by or funded by FEMA. However, in this disaster, we are looking to assist as much as we can,” says David Burns, a spokesman for FEMA. He noted that property owners may qualify for up to $500 in assistance through the agency’s individual assistance program.

But several Florida cities are offering to clean up gated communities, even before word arrives whether they’ll qualify for federal reimbursement.

The city of Sunrise, for example, authorized its own staff to collect hurricane debris from both public and private roadways. “This effort by the City Commission is intended to protect the health, safety, and welfare of Sunrise residents and to remove undue financial burdens from the residents of Sunrise,” the city said in a statement.

But that approach is risky, too, Stermer says. “If you don’t get reimbursed, there’s only way to replenish those accounts, and that’s by a tax increase. There was one storm this year, what if there’s a second storm this year? Let’s say there’s a storm next year. You don’t have the time to replenish these accounts quick enough.”

And local governments may have to float the money for years. It took FEMA nearly two years (22 months) to fully reimburse Weston for its clean-up expenses from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Trying to get reimbursed for cleaning up gated communities could make that process even trickier unless FEMA announces soon that it will cover those costs, he says. “It’s putting cities in a very precarious situation.”

This story has been edited to correct the date of Hurricane Wilma. It was in 2005, not 2015.

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