Hurricane Ian debris removal progress deemed 'tremendous' but much work still ahead
The job of picking up thousands of tons of Hurricane Ian debris continues throughout Lee County as the concept of just how big the job of cleaning up from the storm becomes more clear.
Ian swept through Southwest Florida in a few hours. Cleaning up the mess created by the wholesale destruction of homes and businesses will take a lot longer, even while using bigger and more effective equipment, officials said at a meeting of county commissioners Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t be happy with myself if we didn’t understand how widespread the damage is.”
– Lee County Commissioner Mike Greenwell, Oct. 26, 2022, on impact of Hurricane Ian along the Caloosahatchee River
"This debris profile is dramatically different that what we've experienced in the past from any storm that we've ever had to the memory of the most people in the room," said County Manager Roger Desjarlais, a veteran of decades on the front lines during hurricanes, addressing commissioners.
"We have nine to 10 million cubic yards of debris countywide. In Irma it was something shy of two million," Desjarlais said. "There is construction demolition debris that is just more than anything we have seen before."
In memoriam:Remembering the victims of Hurricane Ian
The federal government is paying for debris removal for the first 60 days at 100% of the cost, but the feds require a paper trail to pay millions in expenses so there are limits how much a resident or even an independent trucker can bring to a disposal site.
Lee County has 108 trucks on the road. They can collect 216 loads of debris in the unincorporated county. As procedures and timing of pick-ups develops, more trucks could be on the roads getting rid of more debris and doing it faster.
Bigger trucks, some contracted from logging companies, allow for self-loading pick-up and dumping, trucking away loads unheard of when Irma struck five years ago.
"We already have a plan in place, to continue ramping up those assets as the work progresses and looking at the debris sites we are going to be collecting in," said Amanda Condomina, a county utilities operations manager. "We already have a plan in place at minimum to ramp up to 120 trucks, 240 units, but that's fluid and it can continue based on the need."
How our communities have fared
Here are figures for estimated tons of debris created by Hurricane Ian and how much was collected in Lee communities during early collection activity:
- Unincorporated Lee:
- 3.5 million, 1.15 million collected
- Bonita Springs: 275,000, 135,000 collected
- Cape Coral: 2 million, 589,000 collected
- Estero: 150,000, 80,000 collected
- Fort Myers: 600,000, 320,000 collected
- Fort Myers Beach: 2.5 million, 202,000 collected
- Sanibel: 600,000, 110,000 collected.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday the state has come to an agreement with FEMA to expedite debris removal in residential communities as well as debris in commercial properties.
DeSantis added that FEMA will use satellite technology, among others, to assess damage more quickly for homes and businesses.
"That's really, really significant because you get the debris out as quickly as possible," DeSantis said. "Then you're able to get things rebuilt and get people back on their feet."
DeSantis said this will help remove vessels and other debris from Lee County waterways as well as private and commercial properties quicker.
An announcement followed mentioning the creation of Florida's debris cleanup program to assist Hurricane Ian survivors.
That will allow residents to request the removal of qualifying debris, DeSantis said.
As of Wednesday, 869 vehicles and vessels have been identified on private and commercial properties.
DeSantis later announced that FEMA's Direct Housing Program has been approved for impacted residents in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto and Lee counties.
The Direct Housing Program provides up to 18 months of assistance for manufactured housing units, nonmotorized recreational vehicles and other ready-to-occupy housing.
Commissioner Mike Greenwell, who lives and operates businesses in eastern Lee County, said it is important that the commissioners and the public understand how pervasive the impact of Ian has been.
"I drove around up in the (Caloosahatchee River) shores, it's overwhelming, that far up the river, the damage — unfortunately, I'm not sure that people realize that — we are a large county and the damage is 20 miles inland," Greenwell said. "There is a tremendous amount of flooding in that river, the debris piles are unbelievable, they're taking everything out of their homes, the drywall, all their furniture, bedding everything, even clothing.
"I wouldn't be happy with myself if we didn't understand how widespread the damage is; there are thousands of homes people are living in that are gutted," Greenwell said.
Joe Hayes, senior project manager for CrowderGulf Joint Venture, the company in charge of the cleanup, said the company will evaluate the first pass of collections through the county and gird up for additional passes that will take some time.
"We will assess again and begin a second pass throughout the county; this will take a number of passes to complete the removal of debris," Hayes said.
Issues raised by attorneys for two companies that lost the bidding war for hurricane cleanup in Lee County did not come up at the meeting.
Desjarlais said the county has sliced a $40 per mile fee for out-of-state transportation of waste material in half.
The Lee County website's home page is devoting space to a debris removal information dashboard, where residents can keep track of when the big trucks will come lumbering by for another pick-up of hurricane-related debris.
Tomas Rodriguez of The News-Press staff contributed to this story.