Houston residents at least have a sense of humor about ongoing debris removal efforts.
Houston residents at least have a sense of humor about ongoing debris removal efforts.
Photo courtesy of Greg Travis

Houston Council Members Seethe Over "Information Blackout" During Debris Cleanup

For Houston City Council member Jerry Davis, each day since Hurricane Harvey begins the same. He takes out his trash and picks up his mail. Then the questions begin.

“Councilman, when are we going to pick up the trash?’” Davis, who represents District B in northern Houston, says his neighbors routinely ask him. “I say, ‘It’s coming. It’s coming.'”

As to when, neither Davis, his fellow council members or even Houston Solid Waste Management, the local agency tasked with picking up the 8 million cubic yards of debris left from Harvey, can answer for sure. The crews of trucks and cranes removing trash have reportedly been out and about since after the storm, but many council members are saying they were left in the dark as their constituents wondered about the mounds of trash heaped outside their homes.

“For all practical purposes, we’ve been in an information blackout,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster, who estimates his area in southwest Houston near Brays Bayou has about 700 homes with severe damage.

Council members vented their frustrations openly during a council meeting with Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday, where they bickered with the mayor about a proposed $60 million boost in funds to obtain more trucks for Harvey cleanup and the perceived lack of transparency from Turner and his solid waste department. The discussion reached a climax in a heated exchange between Turner and Larry Green, the representative of District K in southwest Houston.

Green expressed a feeling other council members shared. On Thursday, the Houston Press spoke with representatives from seven of Houston’s 11 council districts about debris removal efforts. Six expressed frustration with a perceived lack of communication between the city and its neighborhoods.

The Press can relate.

We submitted a list of questions to the solid waste department more than a week ago, looking for answers to questions such as how many trucks the city was using, what neighborhoods had and had not been cleaned and which areas, if any, were being given priority. We were told multiple times that answers to our inquiries were coming soon, only to hear nothing. Solid waste did allow us to visit a cleanup crew in southeast Houston, but the men and women on site couldn’t provide specifics about citywide operations either.

It is reasonable to ask that residents be patient during a colossal and ongoing cleanup of a storm that dumped more than 21 trillion gallons of water on Texas and the Gulf Coast, and council members the Press spoke with were quick to acknowledge the difficulty and magnitude of the cleanup. But members like Green stressed that the lack of communication was actually crippling efforts.

Solid waste officials have asked residents in cleanup areas to move cars from the street, but with no warning about when crews would arrive, Green said some houses in his district couldn’t be cleared when trucks arrived last week.

“They asked that we not park on the streets, but they don’t tell us when they’ll be there,” Green said. “So that obviously becomes the challenge.”

Greg Travis of District G in west Houston said a few crews started visiting his area last week. Progress has been slow, though, as the closest dump site is 32 miles away, he said. District G sits just east of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and remained flooded for weeks after rain receded because of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to release water from the dams. He said about 95 percent of the homes in his district still have debris.

Of the council members the Press talked to Thursday, Travis seemed the most frustrated by the lack of communication or cooperation from the city. He said for two weeks, he had been suggesting using weigh stations in the area to keep trucks nearby and to quicken debris pickup before it was finally approved.

“They’re so far behind,” Travis said. “They have no plan. They’ve never had a plan and when you offer something to them, they tell you no.”

Daniel Santamaria, the chief of staff for Councilman Robert Gallegos in District I, offered a more conciliatory tone, but said his boss shared the other members' exhaustion. District I, which stretches along the east end of the city from the north 610 Loop to Hobby Airport, had only one neighborhood completely flooded, and trucks had picked up some of the biggest piles in the area. His office, though, has felt helpless when residents ask about the trash in front of their houses.

“It’s not that our part of town is not being serviced. We certainly aren’t saying that,” Santamaria said. “The frustration was, ‘Give us an idea of when you’ll be in the area.’”

Districts received a map from the solid waste department reporting the whereabouts of 121 trucks on September 14. The mayor's office has since said the city has 300 trucks to complete a job the Federal Emergency Management Agency has projected may take six months. Turner has said he wants it finished by Thanksgiving — in less than half that time.

A hurdle will be contracting enough additional trucks to quicken the pace. Hurricane Irma has created a sudden demand for crews along the East Coast, and Houston’s debris removal rate, which the city established with DRC Emergency Services in 2012, can’t compete with more lucrative rates from other cities. Turner said Wednesday that FEMA will reimburse 90 percent of costs for a new, higher rate, but that the $60 million proposed at the council meeting would cover the additional expenditures. That proposal, though, was tagged by Green, delaying the vote on the ordinance until next week.

On Friday morning, Turner announced that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will allow Houston to operate its landfills 24 hours a day. The change will permit trucks to deposit debris at temporary sites during the day before moving it to landfills at night. For those who are still waiting for debris pickup, the mayor's office strongly suggests using the 311 mobile app or the report Harvey debris page, which can be found at houstontx.gov and 311's official site. Callers may be waiting as long as nine minutes to reach a 311 representative by phone.

The mayor's office also stressed that reporting debris pickup at a single home multiple times will not lead to a faster removal and that 311 isn't being used to prioritize pickups. Remember, the cranes deployed by the city and contractors can reach only about ten to 15 feet, so some houses may need multiple trips to clear all the debris.

The city can ask for patience, but the piles of trash fit a narrative many citizens have already adopted, according to Davis from District B. For those without flood insurance, or who have been denied assistance from FEMA, the leftover debris is another symbol of the long road many Houstonians face to again having a normal life.

“Every time you drive down the street or look out the window,” said Davis, “you see the constant reminder of being neglected.”

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