One of the most critical and complex elements of disaster recovery is debris removal. The rapid removal of disaster generated debris is vital to protecting the health and safety of a community impacted by disaster and supporting recovery efforts. However, because of the scale and intricacy of the challenge, many state and local governments struggle to manage a debris removal program that is swift, safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible.
This year, the need to prepare for effective large-scale debris removal operations is acute. California has received a historic amount of snowfall which has already begun to run off. Parts of the upper Midwest have already received a substantial amount of snow. The spring melt could bring catastrophic flooding across large parts of the U.S., requiring massive debris removal operations. Now is the time for states and communities to prepare to manage those operations successfully.
The good news is that state and local governments are not alone on debris removal. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is authorized to provide public assistance funding for debris removal, as long as the work is: the result of the presidentially-declared incident; is located within the designated area of a disaster declaration; and is the legal responsibility of government agency applying for funding.
While meeting those requirements seems simple, removing debris in compliance with state and federal law is far more complex and nuanced. There are a vast range of Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) laws, regulations, and executive orders that govern what, how, and where debris can be removed and disposed of. A critical step in preparing to manage a successful debris removal program after a disaster is for local governments to anticipate the impact of these laws on potential recovery operations.
The Clear Air Act and Clear Water Act are two leading examples of federal laws that can impact debris removal planning and operations. Both set legal requirements for the emission or discharge of pollutants and require permits for certain activities which could include debris removal. Each may also require or prohibit the use of certain technologies that must be considered when removing debris.
While those two laws may seem obvious, it is common to overlook the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Local governments should anticipate endangered species in their areas which could be impacted by debris removal. That anticipation extended to endangered plant species as well.
State laws are no less binding than federal laws, and many states have specific regulations regarding the handling and disposal of household hazardous waste, such as pesticides, batteries, and paint, while others may have stricter requirements for the management and removal of construction and demolition debris. Local governments need to be aware of their state’s specific requirements and to work closely with state agencies to build in compliance during planning for debris removal operations.
The best time to assess the potential impact of federal and state laws on debris removal is before a disaster occurs, and removing debris becomes urgent. Working closely with federal and state agencies to understand the applicable laws governing their location, local governments, and partners can ensure debris removal efforts protect the health and safety of the environment while being legally compliant.
Now is also the time to apply lessons learned to ensure any future debris removal program is effective and efficient. Utilizing separate contractors for removal and monitoring allows local governments to focus on finding contractors specifically skilled in each area. A large and growing number of firms across the country specialize in this work, which means they bring specialized equipment and a large team of experienced personnel to the job.
Debris removal contractors should have experience physically removing and disposing of debris in compliance with the aforementioned laws and other regulations. Debris monitoring contractors bring an entirely different set of skills and expertise which helps ensure efficiency and accountability.
Contracting with a debris monitoring company can provide independent assessments of the work being done by debris removal contractors, helping local governments make more informed decisions about the debris management process. Debris monitoring contractors also provide transparent reporting mechanisms which allow the public to see the progress of debris removal efforts and the costs, building trust and confidence in the process. If they have not already done so, local governments should establish criteria for identifying and selecting qualified debris removal contractors and, separately, monitoring contractors for use in the event of a disaster. The benefits of using both have been well-established, but the process for choosing them is better when done outside the context of an ongoing disaster. Debris removal compliance and contracting can sound daunting for local governments but technology is developing critical support tools that can make managing these operations easier – especially in the field of debris monitoring. Communities should be building technology requirements into their disaster response and debris removal planning now to take full advantage of it.
First and foremost, technology can improve the safety of debris monitoring personnel. Mapping software can assist in identifying areas that are flooded and inaccessible. Technology can also facilitate better communication among debris monitoring partners, allowing them to share information and coordinate their efforts more effectively. This can also help to improve the accuracy of debris monitoring by providing real-time data, which is less prone to human error. Technology can be particularly valuable when tracking the location and quantity of debris, as it allows for more precise estimates of the resources needed to remove it.
As in every aspect of life, technology is no universal remedy for debris removal and monitoring. Several potential negative impacts of technology need to be considered in planning. It is possible to become over-reliant on technology, allowing for potential failure if systems become corrupt, unavailable, or misused. This can lead to the input of inaccurate data, incorrect conclusions, and limiting the effectiveness of debris removal efforts. Finally, using technology for debris monitoring can be expensive, which can limit access by smaller governments or organizations. It often requires the purchase of specialized equipment and software. This can be a high cost for local governments and other organizations, which may limit the use of technology for debris monitoring outside the private sector.
Debris removal following a disaster occurs across the country every year, and with the potential for widespread flooding, this spring of 2023 will be no different. There are important lessons that can show local governments how to manage debris removal safely, effectively, and efficiently after a disaster. Still, those lessons need to be applied before the flood waters rise, and hurricane season begins. Doing so can make a difference in being truly prepared.