Hurricane Katrina Forest Recovery

As we work together to tackle the historic challenge that Hurricane Katrina has presented to the forestry communities of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, we hope that this blog will be a valuable resource and tool.

Monday, December 19

MDEQ: In the Wake of Katrina

The magnitude of Hurricane Katrina presented the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) with unprecedented challenges. The storm and its aftermath created a host of problems that MDEQ had to respond to while immersed in a crisis situation with the familiar swept away. Traditional methods had to be altered and the changes needed to confront the storm and its effects required the efforts of the whole MDEQ staff. In addition, relationships with other state and federal agencies as well as local officials had to be forged or strengthened to ensure a cooperative effort.

The massive storm altered traditional emergency response methods. The lack of communication with local officials, other agencies, and MDEQ employees was not anticipated and changed how the first wave of MDEQ emergency responders did their job. The lack of communication for several days and the blockage of transportation avenues was an unexpected challenge. That being said, MDEQ personnel made every effort to visit high hazard facilities as soon as possible and worked with state and federal agencies to greatly
reduce the exposure of people and the environment to hazardous materials.

Fortunately, there were no major chemical spills or large scale damage to the environment. Throughout this effort, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency were of great assistance in Mississippi. MDEQ also received significant contributions from Florida’s law enforcement and environmental response teams in assessing damage in the area of hazardous materials. After the initial storm and the move to assess and contain any environmental spills, there were immediate environmental challenges including an unprecedented amount of debris, identification and disposal of hazardous materials, and restoring wastewater and drinking water systems. In partnership with the Mississippi Department of Health and local officials, MDEQ worked to get the wastewater and drinking
water systems operable.

Amazingly, within a week 58 percent of municipal wastewater systems in the affected counties were operable and by September 16th, 97 percent of them were operating - a vastly under-publicized success story that can be attributed to the hard work of state and local personnel.

The most overwhelming aftereffect of the storm is the accumulation of debris. It appears that the amount of disaster debris that will be removed and managed is greater than any previous storm event in our nation’s history. It is estimated that Hurricane Katrina resulted in 42 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi with approximately 30 million cubic yards of that in the three coastal counties. This enormity caused MDEQ to quickly change its policies in managing and disposing of debris. Guidance in the burning and disposal of vegetative debris was quickly issued and MDEQ worked with local officials on its implementation. Also, MDEQ issued an Emergency Order to allow flexibility with some regulations.

This move was in keeping with the agency’s goals of protecting human health first and then preventing long-term detrimental effects on the environment. MDEQ and local officials have been cooperating on landfill sitings, guidance, permitting, and debris segregation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private contractors have been hired by local governments to remove the debris. It is estimated that the total removal and disposal process could last from one year to two years. Additionally, because of the mix of the debris, HAZMAT such as fuel drums and tanker trucks have continued to be discovered.

Under the arrangements of FEMA, local governments are generally the primary decision makers about how disaster wastes will be removed and disposed. Examples of managing and recycling debris and its challenges include:

• White goods and damaged automobiles must be collected. Prior to recycling with a metal salvage company, the white goods must be removed of foods, refrigerants, and other oils and chemicals. In addition, damaged automobiles will also have the automotive fluids and refrigerant removed prior to crushing and the automobiles will be hauled off to a metals salvage company.

• Vegetative debris in many areas is being chipped for use as fuel at wood-fired boilers or for use in landscaping and other agricultural applications. Vegetative debris in the coastal counties represents more than one-third of the wastes generated. In some instances, local governments have made the decision to burn the vegetative debris as a volume reduction measure. Much of the ash resulting from this controlled burning will be reused as a soil amendment.

• Structural metals, which includes framing and other metal building components are being pulled out of many of the debris piles and stockpiled for removal to a metals salvage company.

• Concrete and asphalt that has been removed from many damaged structures and parking lots is being staged at sites for crushing and processing to reuse and reclaim these materials.

• Waste tires are being segregated and removed from the mixed debris and are currently being stored until tire recycling companies can remove and process the tires.

• Household computers are being staged for removal and reclamation by national computer companies and recyclers. MDEQ also is continuing to pursue recycling options for television
sets and for other household electronics.

• MDEQ has developed an expedited permitting process for companies to establish temporary wet storage yards to stage recovered timber. These wet yards will allow the removal and interim storage of downed timber in the state for ultimate timber recovery.

Unfortunately, not all debris will be recycled. In many instances the debris is so contaminated or mixed that it cannot be recycled in a practical, cost-effective, safe, or expeditious manner. In addition, the cost of transporting some materials to recyclers or end users makes recovery of those items unfeasible. There are a myriad of challenges that faced the State of Mississippi and there are more to come as MDEQ aids in the reconstruction of an infrastructure, an economy, and an environment that absorbed a major blow. Cooperation and flexibility along with sensitivity to the human element are the foundation for working through crises.


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