Key West storm debris removal takes on epic proportions

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

Those piles of landscaping debris at the curb on your street? They may not be moving for a while.

Key West City Manager Jim Scholl reported to city commissioners Oct. 3 that 70,000 cubic yards of the estimated 400,000 cubic yards of landscaping debris left behind after Hurricane Irma has been picked up so far.

“We’re probably somewhere in the 17 to 18 percent range of completion,” he said. “So, it will still take a while.”

While Irma did relatively little damage to homes and commercial buildings, it uprooted giant trees, snapped palm vegetation and stripped almost all the leaves off the foliage left standing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently paying municipalities in declared disaster zones to cart away the debris hauled by property owners out to the curb. The city has contracted with commercial haulers to do the job and they are systematically working throughout all Key West neighborhoods, Scholl said. But some piles keep getting higher.

“After we’ve been through a lot of our streets, the debris piled up even higher after we’ve been through one time. So, it’s going to take two or three passes to get down,” Scholl said.

Approximately 2,000 truckloads of landscaping debris have already been moved outside the city to a staging area. And FEMA recently added four of its own trucks to the hauling brigade in Key West. But one complaint received by several commissioners from constituents in their district is that a truck may pick up debris from one side of the street but not the other. Or a pile behind a parked car is removed but not the pile in front of the same car.

“Those are the things I think neighbors get very frustrated about,” said Commissioner Jimmy Weekley.

Scholl explained that when a truck is full, even in the middle of a block, it must go to the dump to unload. But another problem, according to Weekley, is that while the haulers are only picking up landscaping debris, as per FEMA requirements, some people are putting water-soaked appliances and furniture out on the curb, mixing in with the landscaping debris and making it difficult if not impossible for haulers to separate.

“People are bringing out things that they probably waited since the last hurricane to bring out and put on the sidewalk to be picked up,” Weekley complained.

Commissioner Billy Wardlow asked when the free debris pick-up would stop, as per FEMA restrictions. Usually, FEMA picks up certain storm damage costs for 30 days after a disaster is declared, although that can be extended. But Scholl indicated that the city will continue to remove debris even if the cost will not be reimbursed by the federal government.

“We’re going to keep going until we’re comfortable,” he said. “We’re going to keep going as long as we can and as hard as we can.”

Weekly also worried about the city’s appearance during Fantasy Fest, which begins Oct. 20, if only 18 percent of the piled debris has been picked up three weeks after Irma slammed ashore. Scholl said he is trying to put more crews in the downtown area but new piles accumulate as soon as the old ones are picked up. Still, he was confident that the city will present an almost-polished face for Fantasy Fest. He said the rate of debris removal has ramped up from 1,500 cubic yards a day in the beginning to almost 6,000 cubic yards a day now.

“The town will be as ready as we can make it. People are going to have to understand we had a fairly major weather event here,” Scholl said.