Cleaning up from Hurricane Harvey
August 30, 2017 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand how on earth the people in Texas will clean this up.

First: I'm not in Houston, just watching from afar. Now that I'm fully comprehending the size and scale of Harvey, I'm obsessively thinking about how they'll handle the clean up process. I'm incredibly interested in logistics, organization, transportation, etc. and there are so many questions I don't know the answers to.

Let's start with all of the stuff that has to be trashed. Thousands and thousands of couches, beds, dining room tables, electronics, cars, trucks, trailers (!), lumber, and all of the other stuff I'm not thinking about. Where is it all going to go? Can it all fit in a dump? Will it be burned? Shipped out to sea? Is there any possibility any of the original components of things like electronics can be salvaged or recycled? I'm thinking about what all the trash pickers in India could do with that stuff.

Related question: who's going to make millions of dollars off of this? Are there bulk disposal/salvage companies who make their whole living in times like these? If my house is a total loss, do I have to pay someone with a truck to come by and lug it all away?

Anyway, lots of questions here. What I'm really looking for is some kind of long-form journalism or history that explains the real nitty-gritty of what happens now. Ideally I'd love to learn more about what this all means for the local (and not-so-local) economies.
posted by kinsey to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Secondhand Sandy survivor here -
-Carting companies will bring in dumpsters to collect the ruined stuff. Governments and FEMA will pay contractors with disaster-cleanup firms, and anyone with the equipment, to assist in removing stuff.
-Not much will be salvaged. With so much to do, it's just not worth the additional labor and organization. DIY metal scrappers will drive around in pickups, picking what they can.
-Who makes money? Big contractors who specialize in demo, cleanup, mitigation, etc. Also, some local construction firms get in on the action. Expect big equipment to show up with license plates from many states.
-Local economy: bad hit this year for many, many businesses. Tourism will remain down for more than a year, until "recovery/year-after" stories hit the press. Some businesses will profit from the disaster and do well: particularly, trades, building centers, grocers and restaurateurs near cleanup sites, and all-around-goods companies with solid national supply chains like Wal-Mart and Target.
-Individual people will do a lot of banding together to support neighbors and their families. There will be hyperlocal rebuild/salvage efforts, donation drives for both clothing and money, temporary shelter offers, and tear-down parties.
posted by Miko at 7:19 AM on August 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also, given the degree of chemical contamination going on down there, I would also expect a lot of professional chemical remediation cleanup.

And there will be a need for an anti-mosquito campaign to eliminate pockets of standing water, or an epidemic of mosquito-borne virus may follow.
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on August 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

New orleanian here! Currently killing time in California until Amtrak is sorted out -- our train goes through downtown Houston. I don't feel like I can put my kid through all the reroutes and interim buses and there are so many people trying to get somewhere. Travel is impacted and it's STILL RAINING. Anyway, you can dive into the history of Katrina, there are tons of docs and even Frontline episodes. When I moved to NOLA in 2012 there were still trash mounds about.
posted by polly_dactyl at 7:59 AM on August 30, 2017

I came back to New Orleans a few months after Katrina, and I remember there was an interesting hierarchy of commercial recovery. Gas stations were re-opened first. Local shops and restaurants, typically with limited menus, came next. Grocery stores that had re-opened often closed early, maybe 6 p.m. Bit by bit, more local stores would re-open over the following months. Big chains and national stores were the last to re-open, sometimes long, long after the storm.

Refrigerators were all ruined and impossible to clean. The maggots from rotting food got everywhere in the machinery. Taped-up refrigerators on curbsides for a while became a symbol of destruction/recovery. People painted messages on them.

The neutral ground (an expanse of greenery between streets like a median) on West End Boulevard was a massive impromptu dump for months. Debris piled up to the sky.

Many workers, including a large number of Hispanics, were drawn to New Orleans to take up recovery work. I don’t have data, but I think Katrina boosted the city’s Hispanic population in the long run.

Soon after the storm, the city felt remarkably safe. Then, it exploded in a whole bunch of violence. I think because drug gangs had their turf all shuffled up and a lot was in play. Beyond that the city generally was on edge with murders and a increase in suicides.
posted by Leontine at 8:32 AM on August 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Speaking as only a former Houstonian - my sense is that the cleanup from Harvey in Houston will be somewhat easier than Katrina, because Houston does nothing so well as BIG THINGS.

Freeways are huge, there is a large industrial port, and a infrastructure-heavy companies (petrochemical, esp.) depend upon a functioning Houston. I would not be surprised to see a lot of public-private ventures spring up very soon to get cleanup going post-haste. The danger is, of course, is that ordinary and poor Houstonians will be hosed, while the Halliburtons of the state work the system. We will see.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:42 AM on August 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

I live here. What Miko notes is undoubtably true.

The thing to remember is how enormous Houston is. I don't mean in terms of population; I mean in sheer geography. The sprawl, and the spread of affected areas, will play a role here too even beyond the sheer volume of cleanup to be done.

People are starting to clean up now, in some areas, but n.b. that the flood waters in some places won't recede for weeks, and that's going to create its own problems.
posted by uberchet at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: FEMA operates under authority of the Robert T. Stafford Act. FEMA is not in charge of the disaster response. The state and local jurisdictions are in charge. FEMA and the State jointly set agreed upon objectives and priorities for response. FEMA has lots of PR people meeting with the media and it generally looks like FEMA is in charge. Life saving and protection are always first. Debris removal is a major part of the recovery planing. You can Google "FEMA debris plan" to see examples of actual plans. FEMA has two primary divisions, one is Individual Assistance and the other is Public Assistance (PA). PA is for restoral and recovery of publically owned facilities; Schools, Fire stations, public water systems etc.

The actual collection and eventual disposal of debris is done by contractors overseen by state officials and paid by FEMA after review of billing. Ice storms and hurricanes generate the largest amounts of vegetation debris. It's state and local's who oversee the collection of that material and yes there are millions of dollars paid out to private contractors. Contract monitors are supposed to verify amounts and locations of debris removed.

Private home owner's insurance or National Flood Insurance Program generally foots the bill for disposal of structural materials from a damaged or destroyed home.

Centralized debris staging points are established with defined areas for different categories of debris. Categories include; Green waste (bio-waste), Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), White Goods which are things like refrigerators, washer, dryer, stove and other items with potentially recyclable materials, Concrete, masonry and stone is another category. There is also not otherwise specified debris (NOS). FEMA public information people are in contact with local media to let people know where and when debris pick-up is scheduled.


This is pertinent to Hurricane Harvey: Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) Fact Sheet: Debris Removal Activities
posted by X4ster at 3:28 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here's a pretty good, but very self aggrandizing of the author, trade publication article about FEMA's Hurricane Sandy response.

I have to go wash the bitter out of my mouth now, beer is calling.
posted by X4ster at 3:44 PM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was a disaster relief and construction volunteer in Mississippi for Katrina and in New York for Sandy. The groups that I worked with were embedded in their communities for months, and I visited and revisited these places multiple times in that span. Miko gets a lot of it right. There's little in the way of centralized coordination of disposal because cleanup decisions are largely at the hands of individual property owners. Your home gets flooded, you have to find out if your insurance will cover it and if your policy will pay for, say, construction and cleanup or just construction but cleanup is up to you. Sometimes you just say fuck it and sell to a developer who will just bulldoze your house into a dumptruck.

We were usually brought in by folks who couldn't afford to pay for cleanup or (in later cases) paid a carpetbagging contractor who just took their insurance payout and did a scam job. Sometimes our volunteer group took jobs that the pros turned down because of poor return (ie. cleaning out a hoarders basement). A team lead and housing inspector will do an assessment and define what is salvageable and what has to be rebuilt. Start with letting the owner remove everything of value then everything else gets brought to a dumpster. Fridges are taped up and brought to a curb. Rest of the damaged rooms are demoed down to studs. All of the debris goes in the dumpster. Sometimes a bulldozer comes out to compress the debris.

There's trucks and vans that do salvage patrols of neighborhoods. If you put a cast iron bathtub on the curb or a radiator, odds are someone's going to sweep it into their van in a couple hours. At night some of them will break into demoed houses to strip the copper from the pipes. That's a thing.

Once demoed, you remediate for mold. Sometimes this is bleach, sometimes this is painting with kilz, sometimes this is aggressive air drying and quarantine. Sometimes it's replacing studs wholesale.

You could pick through stuff but there's not much point. Every day spent salvaging is a day that the house isn't being stripped, dried, and remediated for mold. It's time consuming to triage damaged property and that's time that someone is spending being homeless. I don't doubt that somethings went to recycling center where possible, but I am also sure most of it went to landfill.

There's a heavy initial surge of volunteer groups and the area will be flooded with the usual suspects in the first couple of months: Salvation Army, Red Cross, church groups, Habitat, etc. Sometimes you'll see Red Cross trucks going around delivering meals to people and relief workers. There are shower trailers and dozens of community centers operating as shelters and local donation distribution points. Come in and pick through bins of clothes and toiletries for what you need.

Also there are carpetbaggers. On my trips to Mississippi, I'd usual change planes in Atlanta and that leg was likely 80% dudes with carpenter jeans and tape measure belt accessories. Construction crews love a rebuilding and there are customers with all kinds of budgets.

About three months in most of the heavy charity work starts to fade as the funding surge tapers off. Shower trailers go away. Meal trucks make fewer rounds. But more restaurants and hotels are back in action so that's an ok trade-off? Six months in, most of what's going on for volunteers are super lean orgs that rely on local help and a few dedicated church groups. For all of their faults, Mormons are awesome at hanging around and helping out. They're like disaster relief Spartans.

There's usually a surge of aid around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then January and February, it's a weird kind of half normal. More people are in houses that look fixed and more businesses are reopened, but there are the places that never open back up because their employees moved to another city or there are houses who are always under construction because of red tape. Sometimes it's people who moved to stay with relatives and tried to coordinate their rebuild long distance. You have fewer volunteer and construction crews making the rounds but it still happens and then you realize that you're in the long tail of the recovery and that tail will go on for years.
posted by bl1nk at 4:50 PM on August 30, 2017 [15 favorites]

bl1nk, my family is in SE Texas and so far two of them don't have flooded houses, but my parents neighborhood is basically entirely flooded. Right now my parents are in Bridge City living with my aunt and uncle.

I live in Chicago, but most of my family lives in SE Texas. What can I do from here? Is there a checklist or spreadsheet or something where I can keep track of things they don't know about? My mom and dad are over 65 and my mom is usually the organizer. She has a lot of cognitive load right now because there is so much to deal with. Are there chores I can manage remotely?

I'm having trouble knowing what they can do with their house. It is basically flooded to the roof. I don't know when the water will recede. Maybe assume that it will take a week or more. Do they basically need to tear down their house?
posted by bleary at 10:08 AM on September 2, 2017

hey bleary, sorry, I was away camping over the long weekend so didn't see this post until now. I wrote a bit to you in DM, but more info:

I'd refer your parents to the volunteer group that I usually work with (All Hands Volunteers) but unfortunately, their current projects are limited to Fort Bend County and Aransas Pass (they've done previous work there from last year's flooding and are returning to those communities)

Just for additional info: I like the guidance on this Community Impact page (and they cover similar material about cleanup and recovery, and I would trust their advice over what I just typed, re: tossing your carpets and furniture, then tearing out drywall to 4 inches above the high flood mark)

Ideally, your parents' insurance will be ready and responsive, and they'll cut you a huge check that you can then take to a contractor that your parents worked with before and trust, and they can all get professionals to do all of the work, before those professionals are booked up by the thousands of other homeowners who need their labor. Of course, that ideal doesn't really exist. While waiting for insurance to clear and get approved, your parents should consider contacting a volunteer group to help with the muck out and cleanup. The sooner you get cleaned up, the sooner you can get a mold remediation crew in to help dry out the home and the sooner a construction crew can rebuild.

If your parents or their relatives can make it over to a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (Locator tool), they can potentially register for individual FEMA assistance and get referrals to agencies who can assist with remediation. If your parents get a list of numbers to the local Habitat/LDS/other volunteer operations, one job you absolutely can do remotely is take on the work of calling those groups to try and coordinate assistance. (oh, it looks like this is the nearest Habitat to Bridge City, you may want to call them and see if they can setup an assessment for your folks.) Also, depending on your parents' social affiliations, it's worth checking in with their local Elks Club, church, Rotary, etc. to see about what volunteer groups they're in touch with. Basically, all of the volunteer groups have their local networks of communities that they try to contact to find out who needs help and how much help they need. The best thing you and your parents can do right now is cast as wide a net as possible to get assistance.
posted by bl1nk at 5:32 AM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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