A pile of Harvey debris at a management site in northwest Houston.
A pile of Harvey debris at a management site in northwest Houston.
Photo by Joseph Fanelli

Out-of-State Contractors Flock to Houston to Help With Harvey Debris Cleanup

At the temporary dump site for Hurricane Harvey debris in northwest Houston, trucks roll in every few minutes and unload trash in one of three piles that each stand more than 20 feet tall.

The abandoned landfill, one of Harris County’s debris management sites, has been in operation for about a week and a half and likely housed 80,000 cubic yards of trash, said Jason McDaniel, the owner of Southeastern Disaster Relief Services, a subcontractor of DRC Emergency Services, which in turn has been contracted by the both the city and Harris County to assist with debris removal after Harvey.

“You have a lot of people on the ground,” McDaniel said. “We have scouts out there just trying to figure out where to go. We’re getting info from the county and city. Once we get the info, it’s pinged on a map and we go get it.”

The site in northwest Houston illustrates both the grand and minute steps to clearing out the debris left by the historic storm, as well as the web of contractors, subcontractors and even sub-subcontractors employed to do it. Many workers, like McDaniel, who lives in Auburn, Alabama with his wife and 9-year-old daughter, have relocated to the area since the storm arrived. Based on the task at hand, they might not head home for a few more months.

FEMA estimated debris removal could take six months. Mayor Sylvester Turner told Houston City Council last week he wanted it finished by Thanksgiving and John Blount, the Harris County Engineer, said the county is still on track to achieve its original goal of completing pickup in 90 to 120 days. As of Tuesday, Blount said the county had collected 500,000 cubic yards of debris from the unincorporated sections of Harris County including the cities of South Houston, Shoreacres and Hunters Creek Village.

As of Wednesday, DRC had picked up more than 1 million cubic yards of debris for the city, according to Kurt Thormahlen, a general manager with DRC. After Harvey, Turner estimated the storm created about 8 million cubic yards of trash.

On the ground, the county has 10 debris sites like the one run by McDaniel. Trucks from across Houston haul trash to the sites to avoid the long lines at waste management facilities where regular trash collecting and commercial trucks report. After loads are brought into debris sites, trucks are used to compress waste, making it easier to transport to its final destination. About 100 cubic yards of debris can be squashed to about 30 cubic yards just by running it over with a truck or excavator.

In the first week since the site opened, McDaniel said trucks delivered about 250 to 300 loads a day. Since Saturday, that number jumped to more than 400 per day.

Upon arrival, trucks are directed to one of the three piles that represent city and county trash. Both the city and county have contracts with DRC that will pay the contractor based on the amount of cubic yards of debris collected and dispersed. To receive FEMA compensation, the city and county employ a debris monitor in Tetra Tech, a California-based consulting and engineering company. As trucks enter the site, Tetra Tech employees stationed in towers measure the amount of debris in the truck and assign that amount to the city or county.

DRC contracts for the two entities vary slightly in detail – for instance, the city reimburses trucks for tipping fees at waste management sites while the county does not – but the amount being paid per truck has been about the same, according to Blount, the county engineer. Harris County Commissioner’s Court appropriated more than $98 million to Blount for the 2017 calendar year to be used for debris clearing, removal and disposal. The city’s contract covers a five-year window from 2012 to 2017 for $98 million. Because the city has already spent more than $84 million of those funds, Turner proposed a $60 million increase in spending at the September 20 City Council meeting. Councilman Larry Green tagged the motion that day after he and Turner got into a heated argument over debris removal, but the council eventually approved the funds on Wednesday.

DRC’s role in debris cleanup is strictly managerial. The company, based in Galveston, has only 65 employees and coordinates with Houston and Harris County to determine areas in need, then uses subcontracted companies and trucks to pick up debris. DRC has contracted 1,248 trucks for both the city and the county, according to Thormahlen. After Hurricane Irma landed in Florida, there were reports that Houston was having trouble attracting subcontractors because other cities could offer better rates. Since then, FEMA has agreed to reimburse Houston for its trash contractors at $11.69 per cubic yard, up from $7.69. That, Thormahlen said, has “helped tremendously” in recruiting and retaining subcontractors.

Ben Bankston, a regional manager with DRC, and McDaniel have seen the devastation of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes up close. Each worked as part of relief efforts after the 2016 floods in Baton Rouge that killed 13 people in Louisiana and wrecked more than 60,000 homes. Harvey, though, presents a more expansive disaster.

“In Baton Rouge, there was a line on one side of the road on one major highway where you knew pretty much where all the debris was going to be,” Bankston said. “In [Texas], it could be all the way in Tomball, it could be all the way in Huffman and also in Baytown.”

McDaniel has in turn subcontracted about 40 crew members from the Houston area. Since the storm arrived, he’s been staying in a camper in Fresno. It’s the life of a contractor, McDaniel said. He and his crew have been working 12-hour days, seven days a week since Harvey rolled through Houston. If there is one perk, it’s that his family might get a vacation out of it.

“I just promised [my daughter] a trip to Disney to brighten her spirits,” he said.

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