Debris, or not debris? THAT is the question…

I have been attending as many meetings as time (and my job) will allow, and it has been fascinating to be a part of the process.  I typically do a lot more listening than talking when I’m there, and one of the things that has become pretty obvious is that there are a lot of conflicting stories and tons of rumors floating around right now about a great many things.

One item in particular has been in relation to the cleanup of debris.

We’ve all seen the HUGE cleanup trucks around the town and county, reaching out with their giant robot arm to pick up debris that has been piled beside the roads and streets.  The issue has been in regards to what they can or cannot pick up, as well as what constitutes “eligible debris”.  For their part, the contractors want to pick up as much debris as they can, as they are being paid by the load (either by ton or by cubic yard, I think).  For the city and county’s part, they need to be sure that the work that is going on falls within the parameters of the cleanup contract with FEMA.

One of the key terms that has been used is “flying debris”, meaning that if the item in question was of that nature, it was eligible to be hauled away by the contracted help.

But what exactly constitutes “flying debris”?  At one point or another, pretty much everything in the county that was in the path of the tornado was “flying debris”.  I have seen houses shifted completely off of their foundations by several feet.  Granted, they may not have “flown” far, but once they are detached from the foundation, are they not considered “flying debris”?

It terms of vegetation, if it is no longer attached to the tree from whence it came, would that not be the very definition of “flying debris”?  And at what point does the tree itself go from being a tree to being debris?  I would think that if it is laying over on its side, with its root ball exposed above the ground, it has pretty much gone from being a tree to being debris.  It would seem to me that if a squirrel can still harvest nuts from it this fall, it is a tree…but if a den of copperheads is going to take up residence underneath it and wait to bite someone on the ankles as they stroll by, it is debris.

Right now, there seems to be no clear definition of what constitutes “flying debris”, nor is it certain that that stipulation is made any clearer by the contract with FEMA.  After browsing through FEMA’s debris management guide (PDF here, web page here), it even appears that by their own published guidelines, buildings, both public and private, may be eligible to be hauled away, as long as that removal is not already covered by the party’s insurance policy.  However,  businesses and residents are being told that they cannot demolish their standing structures and have them hauled away by the contractors that are in here to move the debris, because it is not part of the contract…so it may be that the contract they are operating under here is different in some ways to the guidelines that FEMA has published, and if so, that is a shame.

One of the things that would be most helpful right now, to business owners in particular, would be the ability to let the contractors haul away their building debris after it has been torn down, but most of the building owners, if not all of them, are going to have to handle that expense out of their insurance coverage, further draining the limited resources they have available to rebuild.  In the FEMA debris management guide, it says specifically that eligible debris removal must be in the public interest, stating that it must, “Ensure economic recovery of the affected community to the benefit of the community-at-large“.  Would this clause not specifically apply to assisting business owners with debris removal?  If not, it sure seems like it should.

The latest word around town is that the debris removal group, which in this case seems to mainly consist of a company out of Knoxville, TN called Phillips and Jordan, has been asked to finish up their part of the debris removal by this coming Thursday at 5pm, at which point the cleanup duties will shift over to local groups.  One of the reasons given is that they (Phillips and Jordan) are not abiding by the contract with FEMA.  Because they are picking up any and all debris that is piled street side, and because this seems to be outside the terms of the contract the city and county has with FEMA, we stand to lose our debris removal funding for cleanup entirely if this practice continues.  If that is the case, then certainly actions must be taken to ensure that we get all of the help we can get without jeopardizing that funding.  However, by looking at the guidelines set forth by FEMA themselves, it is fuzzy at best about what they deem eligible and non-eligible debris, and even that may not apply to our situation if our contract with them is different.

It also looks like the typical FEMA debris removal contract expires after 6 months, although there may be ways to get that extended.  I think a valid fear is that while it is absolutely beneficial to award as much work as possible to local businesses, the magnitude of this cleanup may exceed their capabilities to finish it all up in that amount of time, especially considering that their services will likely be needed for the rebuilding effort, as well.

This is just one of the issues we are facing right now, and my intention with this post is not to point a finger at FEMA, local government, or even the cleanup crews.  I think all parties have worked exceptionally hard under an extreme amount of pressure, and the fact that we are moving forward at all is truly a miracle in and of itself.

No area can ever be completely prepared for a catastrophic event like this.  All we can do is learn from it and hopefully increase our readiness should we ever fall victim to something like it again, and the point of this article is to simply shed a little light on the process and to ask some questions, as well as to address some of the rumors and thoughts that are circulating out there right now.  The need for accurate information in a time like this is extremely high, and it has been since the day the tornado hit.  Inevitably, false information and rumors get out there, and the only thing that can stop them is the truth.  Even then, sometimes what we think is the truth turns out to not be completely accurate, and bad information ends up circulating for no other reason than a misunderstanding.  From there, things can get pretty ugly in a hurry.

Hopefully by discussing the issues, we can minimize any misunderstandings and be sure we get all the help that we are eligible for.  Goodness knows we need it.


  • Paula

     takeaway message: get yer debris out there now, only two days left for certain.

  • entEngle

    I’m not sure if this could be reasonable humor for the situation:
    “…Now who you jiving with that cosmik debris?Look here brother, don’t waste your time on me…”-Zappa