2014-01-23 / Community

Disaster debris—cleaning up after the ShakeOut

By David Goldstein
Special to The Acorn

The Wikipedia entry for “emergency” lists a common understanding of priorities. In a disaster, the first priority is saving people. The next priority is protecting property. Preserving the environment takes third place. Because the environment is lower on the list, preparation to minimize environmental impacts is not given as much attention.

Once a year, many public agencies and some private sector partners participate in an annual earthquake drill known as the “Great California ShakeOut.” Employees drop to the floor, take cover under sturdy objects and hold on. This simulates the procedure recommended to preserve life in case of an earthquake.

In the event of an actual earthquake, those who dropped, covered and held on might emerge to find broken windows, collapsed block walls and other debris scattered around their home.

After attending to the health and safety of their family and determining the extent of the damage to their property, their first environmental questions might be, “How do I get rid of this debris, and who is going to pay for it?”

Consistent with the priorities of emergency management, clearing debris from public rights of way is the first priority so public works and emergency vehicles can quickly pass through neighborhoods.

If debris from your property falls into a street, that should be the first waste you clear, and if you can safely remove it, you should. Local cities and the county are likely to quickly assist with the task of clearing roadways, but they may do so by simply pushing material to the curb.

Public agencies have disaster debris management plans to address the recovery phase of response after this initial attention to immediate concerns.

Most plans call for the designation of temporary storage sites for processing disaster debris, and drop-off of material at these sites may be discounted or allowed without a charge. However, the amount or weight of debris will often make hauling impractical for the average homeowner.

Franchise agreements or contracts between cities and private refuse haulers in Ventura County generally have provisions covering rates to be charged in these cases, and residents will need to make their own arrangements with these haulers.

As with management of construction and demolition debris in non-emergency situations, separation of materials can lead to greatly reduced costs. For example, homeowners who mix the debris from a concrete wall with the discards from a collapsed wooden fence are likely to pay more and have fewer options than if they separately recycle the concrete and the wood.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, residents of some Los Angeles neighborhoods were encouraged to pile debris at their curbs. City-owned refuse collection trucks, staffed by city crews, went house to house, collecting debris at tremendous expense over a long period of time.

That approach is unlikely in Ventura County, so residents should not pile material in streets unless specifically requested to do so. Individuals are also unlikely to receive reimbursement for disposal or recycling costs.

As pointed out by Grahame Watts, emergency services manager for the City of Thousand Oaks, “We will be lucky enough if public agencies can get reimbursed by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for their emergency response costs; it is unlikely public funds will be available to pay for private cleanup expenses.”

However, there is one area of waste management where Watts notes the potential for a public response. After a disaster, public agencies can secure exemptions to some of the rules regulating the collection of household hazardous waste, and they frequently arrange for the safe collection and disposal or recycling of items such as paint, oil and pesticides.

For example, after the 2005 floods in the Ojai Valley and the landslide in La Conchita, Don Sheppard and other county staff provided free household hazardous waste collection services in those communities.

When disaster strikes, protect people and property. Then keep your “eye on the environment” by managing debris.

David Goldstein works for the Ventura County Public Works Agency.

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