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As Thanksgiving approaches, Collier County hopes to have most of its Hurricane Ian debris collected. Although the county is confident it will hit the 75%-cleanup benchmark by the holiday, officials said there is still plenty of work to do.

It’s been a month and a half since Hurricane Ian ripped through Southwest Florida, bringing historic levels of flooding to Collier County. Areas hit hardest by flooding are still priorities for the county’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Division, director Kari Hodgson said.

“The utmost priority is removing all of what is termed construction and demolition, which is the drywall, the insulation, furniture, mattresses, all of those items are a priority because they’re going to mold and that could get people sick,” Hodgson said. “And then getting it off the streets for the same reasons that you can clog storm drains and the odor associated with it.”

Unlike Hurricane Irma, which forced large amounts of vegetative debris, horticulture, cleanup from Ian is not an immediate concern. Hodgson is noticing trees are just starting to feel the impact of the saltwater intrusion from the flooding, making it a focus of the debris cleanup team.

“It is somewhat of a benefit, if you will, that the vegetative debris takes a little longer for some of it to die, because the tree tries to recover from what it’s experienced,” Hodgson said. “So we’re seeing a whole lot of vegetative [debris] come out now.”

The community was quick to learn Ian and Irma aren’t comparable. “In Irma, the public roads were scattered with vegetative debris, then you have [Ian] where the public roads weren’t nearly as scattered with vegetative or debris in general,” she said. “It was these areas that experienced these floods and the surge, so it kind of shifted that mindset.”

County staff planned to follow Federal Emergency Management Agency protocols after Irma for Ian. Three weeks after Irma, FEMA approved entry into gated communities to gather vegetative debris.

The county experienced an unanticipated change in FEMA guidelines this time, causing homeowners associations to wait longer than what’s ideal for debris collection. “We put in the request on Oct. 5, about the same day we started debris removal, to countywide be able to go and remove debris in gated communities and FEMA said ‘No, it’s not a big countywide storm and we will not allow that,’” Hodgson said.

Staff is pushing to get into every gated community on an individual basis by sending a letter to FEMA and waiting for approval.

HOAs are expected under FEMA guidelines to have debris removal insurance, which is why an extra step is required for the county to receive permission to enter those communities. The Solid and Hazardous Waste Division sees this as one of the biggest obstacles in the cleanup process.

“I think the biggest frustration has been trying to get to areas where it’s been much more hard to get approval, because you only know what you know,” Hodgson said. “When you go through a storm like Irma and you get that approval and then it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, change the strategy.’ So [we’ve spent] lots and lots of time with FEMA and state representatives. We appreciate the time they’ve taken to come down here, we did two-day tours with FEMA and multiple-day tours with the state.”

Debris is being taken to the Wiggins site off Vanderbilt Drive and the Collier County Resource Recovery Business Park just north of the county landfill. Drywall, furniture and other construction items are smashed and taken by a tractor trailer to the Okeechobee landfill. Appliances are recycled, and vegetative debris is taken to Florida Soil Builders in the northeast part of the county. These sites are not open to the public and are approved by the state and inspected by FEMA for compliance. 

The county expects the entire debris mission, excluding waterway debris, to cost more than $40 million. That number could increase as seasonal residents return to Southwest Florida.

“We might find that as our seasonal residents return that there’s a lot more that’s put at the curb than we anticipated or expected,” Hodgson said. “That could make the number rise. Then there’s people that maybe aren’t just seasonal but haven’t returned to their homes because this is the southwest part of Florida where this is a lot of people’s second homes. So we just have to wait and see for a little while, see how that affects that ultimate dollar amount.”

Those returning to their homes for the first time since the storm must follow the county’s standards for debris separation. Debris should be separated into piles of construction and demolition debris, vegetative debris and then any household hazardous waste such as chemicals. Debris should not be placed near fire hydrants, utility and water meters or storm drains.

“We’re asking residents if they have veggie waste to conform it the best they can to our curbside collection which is 4 feet in length and 4 inches in diameter, and bundled or put in a paper bag or container,” Hodgson said. “That’ll help us prevent from having to ask FEMA for permission to come in and try and remove it.”

Debris pickup trucks will not go through a community or road only once. The county realizes that residents are still evaluating the flooding and storm surge impact and are continuing to put items out on their curbs.

There are still around 100 trucks collecting debris throughout the county.

“We work in the garbage industry, we’re not insensitive to complaints by any means, but I can honestly say the public has not been very harsh to us, and we’re very grateful for that,” Hodgson said. “They have been supportive and understanding and now people are starting to get a little impatient and I completely understand that. I’ve been working in the waste management industry for 18 years and people don’t want to see their life at the curb. For us, it’s been staying focused on the mission, which is restoring our paradise and have empathy. Understand what people are going through.”

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