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The Key to San Jose's Speedy Disaster Recovery: Garbage

After a natural disaster hits the California city, the environmental department is among the first on the ground.

(San Jose Environmental Services)
This winter was the rainiest in Northern California in two decades. For San Jose, that hit home in late February, when a raging waterfall spilled over the nearby Anderson Dam. As the water gushed into Coyote Creek, it rose over its banks and flooded several city neighborhoods. The Coyote Creek flood, which impacted mostly immigrant and densely populated communities, ultimately prompted the largest evacuation in the city’s history.

But as the floodwaters receded, residents returned to find staff from the San Jose Environmental Services Department ready to help them assess the damage to their homes and clean up. Environmental departments do a lot of planning to make their cities more resilient to global warming and natural disasters. Their efforts have made cities, according to the authors of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the “early responders to climate change challenges and opportunities.” But environmental departments have long been early responders to natural disasters; they’re often among the first on the ground in the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes and other events.

That was the case in San Jose, where the Environmental Services Department showed up with bins and equipment to help remove flood debris. That in itself may not sound unique -- and it’s not. But thanks to a clause in the department’s garbage hauling contract, post-flood cleanup in San Jose was fast and efficient. “It’s really important from a community standpoint to help folks get back to normal as fast as possible and with as little extra effort and bureaucracy from the city as possible,” says Kerrie Romanow, director of the department. “And having in our garbage contract that the haulers had to have equipment ready and had to provide services in an emergency helped accomplish that.”

Jo Zientek, deputy director of the department, says the city got the idea to add an emergency services clause after its last flood in 1997. “We relied a lot on our haulers,” she says, “so we knew to include the provisions in subsequent contracts.” She adds that it’s unusual to include emergency services in a garbage contract, but that it “really ended up helping us address this event immediately because our haulers were obligated to have some equipment ready to go.”

The flooding in San Jose damaged more than 500 housing units, causing an estimated $73 million in damage to private and public property. By April, the Environmental Services Department had hauled away more than 1,760 tons of flood debris. The department’s Illegal Dumping Rapid Response Team, which had just been brought in-house last summer, says it removed some 6,000 gallons of hazardous liquids, primarily paint, and 21,000 pounds of toxic solids, including batteries and fluorescent tubes.

In the event of future natural disasters, the department has learned a new lesson: the importance of communication. “The expectations of city residents is that when they see someone from the city they should be able to ask them when the gas is going to come on, for instance, or when their yards will be safe for their children to play on again,” says Zientek. But since the environmental services staff doesn’t usually deal with those types of questions, they had to improvise. They coordinated with emergency services to create fliers with vital information, and had staff on hand that spoke different languages. But for the future, Zientek says, “we’ll have a boots-on-the-ground communication strategy ready.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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