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Disaster debris management: Two great challenges for local governments

Tim Berkhimer, P.E.
Director, Disaster Recovery Group
Phillips & Jordan, Inc.
Zephyrhils, Florida

Disaster events burden local government officials with numerous significant challenges, each of which can be best managed through strategic thinking and the pre-positioning of resources and knowledge. Of the many challenges presented, two of the most significant are directly related, though one is immediately visible to the community and the other is not.

The immediate challenge is the removal, processing and lawful final disposal of all debris scattered across the impacted community. A pre-positioned, comprehensive disaster debris management operations plan will address this challenge and become the basis for timely and coordinated restoration of normal daily life within the community-the goal of all disaster response and recovery planning.

A comprehensive disaster debris management operations plan will include: a) estimates of the quantities and types of debris expected to be generated by the most likely disaster event; b) executed contracts with financially responsible, reputable firms for the collection, processing and lawful disposal of all debris; c) sites adequately sized and centrally located for the temporary storage and processing of debris; d) letters of agreement and memorandums of understanding with adjacent localities, state and federal agencies, and local businesses to provide response and recovery resource assistance; and e) pre-scripted public information announcements for pre- and post-disaster operations.

Since disasters are uncommon, and indeed rare events for local government officials to respond to, the second great challenge becomes the management of the fiscal impacts of the events, i.e. local response and recovery operations costs. Recognizing that debris management costs have historically been and will continue to be the single greatest cost element of response and recovery operations, it is imperative that planning for maximum reimbursement of these costs be included alongside the development of the operations plan.

The challenge of maintaining normal service delivery as recovery costs continue to accrue is not immediately apparent to local citizens, but can become a long-term struggle for executive and senior management level officials if not properly planned for. Also, and again due to the rarity of disaster events within a given community, it is unlikely that sufficient staff resources are available within the local government to be trained, become experienced, and stay current with changing state and federal public assistance (reimbursement) program requirements. The best management practice to address the fiscal challenges of disaster recovery is to strategically pre-position knowledge and experience, from a local government perspective, necessary to gain maximum reimbursement of eligible costs in the quickest and most complete manner possible.

Preparation for each of these two great challenges is available through training programs offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state emergency management departments. The FEMA Debris Management Course and Public Assistance Program training course will define a course of action by local governments, yet a substantial work effort is required to develop operational plans. One such community that has developed a Disaster Debris Management Program (and had its applicability tested following a hurricane strike) is the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia. The Public Works Operations Group developed and executed contracts for debris removal, reduction and disposal assistance; identified and gained pre-approval from regulatory agencies of several sites to be utilized as Temporary Debris Storage and Reduction Sites (TDSRS); coordinated an inspection program to monitor contractor activities; and conducted a training workshop for employees from all City and Public School departments in recording and documenting disaster costs to support the FEMA/State reimbursement process.

This program was called to action following Hurricane Bonnie in August 1998 and Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. On each occasion, contractors and City forces were mobilized very quickly and all debris was collected and disposed of in a timely and coordinated manner. Maximum reimbursement of eligible damage costs was granted by FEMA and the State. Citizens, local government officials, and elected leaders of the City praised each of these actions.

The Virginia Beach Plan for Hurricane Response Preparedness was selected by FEMA for publication in its Debris Management Guide published in April 1999. The plan is included in the Guide as the example strategy used to develop a debris management plan.

For more information, please contact Tim Berkhimer at 813-783-1132 or at tberkhimer@pandj.com.