Dorian Debris: Why Are Things Different This Time Around?

0
1009
Vegetative debris is added to a growing pile at the Otway dump Friday morning.

“When will the county be picking up debris?”

I’ve run into the question dozens of times since Hurricane Dorian hit our area last week, mostly from people living Down East and north of Beaufort where the most damage occurred.

The answer right now is, “they aren’t going to.”

Advertisement

That answer hasn’t been satisfactory to most people who’ve asked it. Branches and sections of tree trunks are piled up and spilling into the roadways, especially Down East and north of Beaufort. After Hurricane Florence, the state and county hauled away debris for people living in unincorporated parts of the county.

“Why aren’t they doing anything this year?” is the question that usually follows, often accompanied by statements of dismay or anger.

The answer isn’t a simple one, but I’m going to try to address it anyway.

First, let’s look at where Eastern Carteret stands with Dorian debris

The county has expanded space for debris at some solid waste facilities, including the Otway facility on Harkers Island Rd. This decision was made as soon as the storm passed.

According to Asst. County Manager Gene Foxworth, after a storm county staff assess the amount of debris throughout the county to evaluate the need for temporary debris sites (TDS).

Advertisement

“Generally, we do not open sites unless we have a large event like Florence last year because our normal waste streams can handle volumes like we have seen with Dorian,” Foxworth said.

The assessment takes into account the type of debris and how it is distributed throughout the area. I can see the eyebrows going up on my Eastern Carteret neighbors’ foreheads.

County Chair Mark Mansfield acknowledged that the people of Eastern Carteret have a lot more debris to deal with than those west of the ICW, and said the county’s assessment of Down East debris is the reason they expanded space at the Otway facility.

Beaufort hired a firm to handle storm debris before Dorian hit, and pick up began today. Residents should make two piles beside, but not in, the road: one for vegetative debris and the other for construction/household debris. Debris pickup is expected to continue through at least Wednesday, Sept. 18.

Beaufort Town Manager John Day explained that the town went ahead with hiring a contractor because the town did not have the resources to deal with the amount of debris expected.

Neither the county nor Town of Beaufort knows if these extra expenses will be reimbursed by FEMA. At this point, FEMA has not approved assistance for debris management in the State of North Carolina.

The state Dept. of Transportation is the entity that decides if debris will be picked up from the sides of state-maintained roadways. This generally only happens when the state has been approved for federal reimbursement of debris management expenses, though the state could decide to pay out of pocket.

Mansfield said that if the state does decide to do roadside pickup, the county may choose to handle debris along non-state-maintained roads.

Next, let’s lay out the basics of storm debris management

Hopefully this primer on storm recovery and FEMA explains more about our current situation.

Our county and the municipalities within it handle storm debris in their own jurisdictions. e.g.: if the county decides to pick up debris, it will provide that service in unincorporated areas. It will not pick up debris within town limits.

Counties and municipalities – AKA local taxpayers – must shoulder these costs just like any other waste management cost.

If the President declares a disaster in a state, that state’s government can request help from FEMA on behalf of counties and municipalities.

There are two types of disaster declarations: emergency and major disaster. Emergency declarations free up federal funds to assist a state deal with an immediate emergency. Those funds are capped at $5 million. Major disaster declarations are made when it has been determined that a state cannot handle the effects of a disaster.

Neither type of federal declaration guarantees any certain kind of assistance. There are seven categories of costs that FEMA may choose to reimburse for. For instance, sandbagging (Category B) may qualify for reimbursement, but not debris management (Category A).

Furthermore, the entity requesting assistance must have damage considered bad enough to qualify. You can read FEMA’s thrilling explanation of how that works here.

Local governments cannot directly request public assistance from FEMA. They must go through the state, which will then pass FEMA funds down to the local level. FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of approved expenses.

If you want to dive in deep, here is FEMA’s complete manual on public assistance.

Now, let’s look at where we stand a week after Dorian

President Donald Trump declared an emergency in our state on Sept. 1 ahead of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival. FEMA announced that it would reimburse 75 percent of costs related to only Category B emergency protective measures, defined as: Measures taken before, during and immediately after a disaster to save lives, protect public health and safety, and protect improved public and private property.

Debris management is under Category A, so Dorian-related debris expenses are not approved for reimbursement.

FEMA could choose to add more categories of post-Dorian public assistance for our state. It is up to local governments to tell the state they need more assistance, then it’s up to the state to request more FEMA help from the federal government.

Peter Gaynor, the acting administrator of FEMA, met with state emergency officials Sunday, Sept. 8.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Carteret County Chair Mark Mansfield, met with Trump and Gaynor aboard Air Force One Monday, Sept. 9.

At the meeting, Cooper requested that the president issue a major disaster declaration in addition to the Sept. 1 emergency declaration. “What we would request, Mr. President, is an expedited disaster declaration for both debris removal and for emergency protective measures,” Cooper said.

He then asked Trump to encourage HUD to allocate community rebuilding funds requested after Florence. Trump said he will look into it. You can read the full Whitehouse transcript here.

If the president does declare a major disaster in North Carolina, FEMA would add more categories of assistance. Which categories those might be, and which counties those categories would apply to, is up to FEMA. For instance, even if a declaration is made, Dare and Hyde counties might be approved for debris management, but not Carteret.

However, as of the writing of this editorial, there is no indication that the president will declare a disaster here.

Now let’s look at how the county handled debris after Florence

President Trump declared North Carolina a major disaster area on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, as Hurricane Florence was still sitting on top of us. State and local governments knew they were eligible for at least some types of FEMA money before the rain even stopped.

FEMA announced that Carteret County was eligible for debris management assistance in concert with the major disaster declaration.

The county sent out its first press release on debris pick up on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2018. It informed people living along state-maintained roads in unincorporated parts of the county that they could put debris on the roadside and NC DOT contractors would pick it up. DOT picked up the first round of debris beginning Oct. 4, three weeks after the storm.

Also on Sept. 18, the county announced it was waiving disposal fees at solid waste facilities. Then it started opening temporary debris sites across on Sept. 20, 2018. Eight TDS were opened in total.

The state and county felt comfortable mobilizing on emergency debris management because they knew those expenses were eligible for reimbursement from FEMA.

In the mean time, county officials determined that more debris help was needed, and a request for proposals (RFP) was sent out. On Oct. 12, about a month after the storm, the county announced that bids had come in, and it would be hiring a firm to remove debris along county roads that were not state-maintained. That contractor was scheduled to start work Oct. 21, or about five weeks after the storm.

It took longer to get the debris removal process started at the county level than the state level because the county was legally required to put out bids for two weeks before hiring a contractor. The county could have avoided that wait if it had a pre-existing disaster debris contractor in place, but it did not.

As of July 24, the county had been approved for $14.5 million in aid – 75 percent from FEMA and the remaining 25 percent from the state. A county budget amendment request in May stated that costs for debris management alone exceeded $14 million.

Finally, I’ll try to sum it all up

There are a few ways a government can choose to deal with the necessity of storm debris management and the uncertainty of FEMA money:

  1. Spend now and hope the work will be added to FEMA’s list of approved expenses, but be ready to absorb the costs if not. This puts tax money at risk, but fixes a problem for tax payers. Beaufort went with this method.
  2. Spend nothing (or as little as possible) and wait to see if FEMA adds any approved expenses. This does not risk any (or much) tax money, but it puts the problem on the tax payers. The county has gone with this method.

As with any problem governments deal with, it’s comes down to which way is a better way to lose, because after a storm, we all lose in one way or another. To cover debris removal, Beaufort could end up having to cut expenses that benefit residents in other ways. Unincorporated county residents may not see a change to the benefits budgeted for them, but will spend extra time and energy solving the problem themselves.