While it’s been less than a month since Hurricane Irma’s strong winds brushed through Florida, Hillsborough County Commissioners are getting an earful from constituents questioning when debris gathered in front of their homes will be picked up.
Irma blew over the Tampa Bay area the night of September 10. Just eight days later, two companies hired for debris removal — AshBritt and Phillips & Jordan — began the cleanup process.
“My office was originally told it would take 2-3 weeks for the first pass through. Then it was three weeks, then it was four weeks, and then last week I was told it would be mid-November before it would be completed,” said County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
“It appears that we’re making significant steps towards clearing the debris,” he added. “But, candidly, when I drive through at least the northwest part of the county, I do not see it.”
Hagan also decried the lack of timely information on the county’s website when it came to informing the public about the status of debris pickup, calling it “inadequate.”
While the city of Tampa and Pasco and Pinellas counties have maps giving updates on the cleanup, Hillsborough does not, prompting Commission Chair Stacy White to agree with Hagan that “communications have to be better.”
County Administrator Mike Merrill said he took full responsibility for any failure of communications. He said part of the problem was the sheer magnitude of the debris that has accumulated, the huge size of the county, the unavailability of resources and the fact that the debris clearing companies have only been on the job for two weeks. “That’s not an excuse, just a fact,” he said.
The amount of the debris countywide may be unprecedented, with over 600,000 cubic yards scattered throughout the region. Merrill described the total mass of it as being the size of Raymond James Stadium and the height of the county center.
Public Works Director John Lyons said that there are currently 56 contractor crews now operating throughout the county, supplemented with 10 county crews. To date, over 112,000 yards of vegetation has been picked up.
Unlike other Tampa Bay area communities, AshBritt and Phillips Jordan have not bailed out on Hillsborough County to make more money by going to other parts of the state with more significant needs.
However, subcontractors not directly under contract with the county have left the region, resulting in subcontractor crews with smaller trucks that allow them to pick up smaller amounts of debris.
Although the commissioners agreed that no additional funding was needed to speed up the process, Merrill did say that he has informed the two debris contractors to go ahead and pickup trash in gated communities. That’s despite the fact that FEMA requires preapproval in those gated communities to get reimbursed, which he said took approximately 3-4 weeks.
“So I made the decision to tell contractors to just pick them up,” Merrill said, admitting that it could result in the county not being fully reimbursed for the entire cleanup.
Commissioners Les Miller and Sandy Murman, both residents of Tampa, said that they have not had debris picked up from their own homes, and urged patience, referring to the “huge, huge, huge” size of the county in Miller’s words.
“This doesn’t happen overnight, and you just can’t clean it up overnight,” Miller said, ignoring the fact that the majority of the debris did happen overnight September 10 into the next day.
Officials said things would get better soon.
Lyons may use Solid Waste haulers to work on Sundays to help out in the effort, saying Merrill promised that the county’s communications staff would come up with a plan to inform the board by the end of this week.