Hurricane Series: Debris Monitoring

Aerial view of a hurricane off the coast of the Carolina's.
on 11 July 2020
  • hurricane season
  • debris monitoring
  • response

With hurricane season upon us, I wanted to delve into some of the ways engineering helps to protect us after a storm.

Everybody knows the precautions to take before and during a storm: store up on food, board the windows, stay indoors, but what about everything that happens after that when you’re ready to get back to your everyday life? Who helps get communities up and running again?

In this series, I’m going to write about some of the invisible heroes of storm recovery, including planners and engineers. Specifically, these blogs will include debris removal and monitoring, stormwater and bridge reconstruction, and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR).

These services are the result of some disastrous events, and during this time of year they are some of the most crucial efforts in keeping us safe. This first entry will focus on the debris removal and monitoring piece of these services.


Hurricane Spaghetti Model showing the hurricanes since 1985.

Hurricanes that have hit the East Coast and states along the Gulf of Mexico since 1985.


HOW FREQUENT ARE HURRICANES?

Since 1985, 57 hurricanes have hit the east coast and states along the Gulf of Mexico. According to historic data, over 60 percent of hurricanes strike during the months of August and September. Thirty six of the 57 hurricanes since 1985 have occurred during these months. The typical peak of hurricane season comes around the middle of September, but in the past 35 years, 12 hurricanes have made landfall on the southeast coast of the U.S. during the months of October and November. Similarly, 9 hurricanes have struck during the months of June and July.


WHAT DO HURRICANES LEAVE BEHIND?

Hurricanes, tropical storms and even tropical depressions can cause massive damage with regards to displaced debris. Debris can be tree limbs, house fragments, personal belongings or anything that is moved from where it normally rests to a different location. Debris creates extremely hazardous environments for the public. Large debris such as fallen trees and power lines can block roadways completely, and other hazardous debris can contaminate the air and soil in the area.


Hurricane Damage chart by Hurricane Category

*Reference: https://www.wunderground.com/prepare/hurricane-lingo


THE STORM HAS LEFT DEBRIS EVERYWHERE! WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The top priority is ensuring public health by clearing roads for emergency services and travelers. Sometimes the best avenue for clearing routes is pushing the debris to the shoulder for it to be picked up later. This is temporary solution and eventually the debris will need to be removed and disposed of properly. It is the responsibility of the state or municipality that owns and maintains the road to ensure the debris is removed. This process can be profoundly expensive and time consuming, so the federal government has funds allocated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to assist state and local governments with the cost of these cleaning efforts.

This is where expertise in debris removal and monitoring comes in to play
in the days following a major storm.

Typically, the owner will enlist the help of a contractor to physically remove and dispose of the debris, and an engineer to monitor the process to ensure maximum federal reimbursement.


HOW IS FEMA INVOLVED?

All cleanup operations must be properly tracked according to the FEMA and FHWA guidelines to receive this funding assistance. FEMA and FHWA guidelines are highly complex and require qualified individuals with this specific experience.

FEMA lists the types of debris as follows:


FEMA chart showing types of debris

*Reference: https://emilms.fema.gov/IS632A/DM0103030text.htm

The most common debris from a storm is tree limbs and branches which will fall into the vegetative category. This type of debris is the simplest to dispose of because it can usually be recycled, stockpiled, buried or burned. However, each state has unique criteria regarding the disposal of debris. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection must be contacted to determine which method of disposal is best for a specific area.


WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE REST OF THE DEBRIS? WHERE DOES IT GO?

The other forms of debris are much trickier. These types don’t have a simple disposal method because none of them can be recycled or burned. Each item must be examined to determine the safest way to dispose of properly.

For types such as construction and demolition and white goods, the best solution may just be a landfill.

Due to the serious risk to public health, extreme caution must be taken by the contractor, monitor, state and owner to ensure all debris is taken somewhere it can be safely dealt with.


HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK OF ALL OF THE DEBRIS?

Until recently all debris quantity and disposal tracking was completed with the use of paper ticketing systems and required heavy data management and processing on the tail end of the operation. These methods left large margins for error and could result in forgotten debris, public health risks and money on the table.

With the increased use of mobile devices and platforms, digital tracking and ticketing is replacing the paper trail thanks to new apps and programs. This increases efficiency and decreases tail end data processing, making information more readily accessible and searchable. This all leads to roads and property being cleared quickly and safely while securing more funding in the process.


I know personally from living most of my life on the coast in North Carolina, that hurricanes and their aftermath are frightening situations. People want to know how things get put back together, but people don’t often know “who” is behind that recovery. It takes teamwork from many different professionals to restore communities after a storm.

As a private citizen, I take solace in knowing that there are a lot of people working quickly to make sure we can safely travel to the store for supplies, check in on loved ones and return to work as soon and as safely as possible.