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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2018
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South Florida poaches debris pickup trucks once headed to Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay area has an estimated 2 million cubic yards of debris from Hurricane Irma waiting at the curb — enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching 735 miles, or from Tampa to Tupelo, Miss.

But many trucks that could help make those tree limbs disappear are instead heading to South Florida, where hauling fees have shot up since the hurricane.

That has left several bay area communities and their private storm debris contractors scrambling.

Take Tampa. This week, City Hall heard that its debris removal contractor, Ceres Environmental, planned to rent about 30 trucks to add to the five it already has in Tampa.

Then the rental company abruptly changed its plans.

"The subcontractor received a higher-price offer from another entity in South Florida and did not provide the trucks to Ceres for use in Tampa," Stanley Bloodworth, the company's project manager for Tampa, said in an email. "Ceres is actively seeking additional resources from other subcontractors to fulfill the needs of the city of Tampa."

It's disappointing, said Brad Baird, Tampa's top utilities official, but he doesn't blame Ceres.

"These suppliers are holding all the cards," he said. "They're going to where people are paying the most for the cubic yard." So "they went right by us on the interstate."

Tampa has an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of storm debris. It is paying $9.77 per cubic yard to get rid of it. And it's going to take a while.

"Probably two months, even with the outside crews we've hired," Mayor Bob Buckhorn says.

The city is not alone.

On Thursday, six counties — Alachua, Hendry, Indian River, Manatee, Orange and Sarasota — complained to the state that haulers are forsaking them to rake in as much as $15 a cubic yard in South Florida. In response, Attorney General Pam Bondi suggested companies in those counties might be violating Florida's law against price-gouging.

In Clearwater, the city's contractor, AshBritt Environmental, was expected to start work by Friday.

It didn't.

"Extremely frustrating," director of solid waste Earl Gloster said. "We knew resources were going to be scarce. But we met with them this past Tuesday and they said Friday we could start with you guys. As the week went on, I got less and less confident."

Gloster said he reached out to AshBritt before Irma hit to confirm that the city would need its services, called again the morning after the storm and met with the company Tuesday.

"We have a contract and they should have been on the ground working well before," he said.

Late Friday afternoon, AshBritt senior vice president Rob Ray said in an email the company had talked with Clearwater officials again.

"We are beginning hauling operations in Clearwater tomorrow morning," Ray said.

Meanwhile, Clearwater solid waste and recycling crews are working 12-hour shifts to clear yard waste as quickly as they can.

Crews have cleared debris east of U.S. 19 and north of Sunset Point Road and are working their way south.

The city plans for AshBritt to start working on Clearwater Beach, then push east once the beach has been cleared.

Largo public works director Brian Usher estimated Irma left about 17,000 cubic yards of debris around his city.

"There is no part of Largo that doesn't have debris in front of every house," he said.

But the cleanup process is going slowly as the city's contractor, DRC Emergency Services, struggles to find subcontractors. Many have gone to Houston, Miami or Fort Myers, Usher said.

"We're all kind of in the same boat," he said. "We understand that it's slow, and we're working as quickly as we can with all of our people."

Largo workers are putting in 10-hour shifts six days a week. Still, it could be more than a week before they complete their first pass through the city.

In St. Petersburg, "some of the haulers that work for our contractors are being pulled elsewhere," city spokesman Ben Kirby said. "But we are in good shape. . . . Nearly 7,000 cubic yards have already been removed."

Thursday night, the city decided to use parks and recreation and sanitation workers to take debris to three staging areas from which contractors transfer it to central disposal areas monitored for compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency rules.

Having city workers pick up debris will mean that parks will take longer to be cleaned up and sanitation will delay special pick-ups, parks and recreation director Mike Jefferis said. Normal garbage and recycling services won't be affected.

Pinellas County public works director Rahim Harji said the county has not had problems with AshBritt, but the contractor is having trouble keeping subcontractors from heading to South Florida.

"I know they're struggling," Harji said. "We tried activating our other five contractors, but they don't have the resources."

County crews have been shifted to pick up debris, Harji said. AshBritt, with 10 to 12 crews working across Pinellas County, earns $7.75 per cubic yard to haul the debris to four collection sites.

Overall, Harji said, the effort is going well, though "it will take time" to remove at least 600,000 cubic yards of debris.

Hillsborough County public works director John Lyons said the county has not had any problems with its contractors, AshBritt and Phillips & Jordan.

There's 1 million yards of debris to pick up, much of it in east Hillsborough, and it will take three or four weeks to remove it. The number of trucks in Hillsborough has increased since last week, but Lyons doesn't know if more will come.

"There's probably a lot more demand than supply," he said.

Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and Times staff writers Steve Contorno and Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

Getting a FEMA reimbursement

It's not easy to get money from FEMA. Here are some of the steps Tampa and its debris contractors must go through to be eligible to file for federal reimbursement:

• Trucks can only be loaded by mechanical claw, not by hand.

• The type, loading equipment and loading capacity of each truck must be certified. There needs to be a record, including a photo, of each driver.

• As loads come in to the city's dumping facility, contractors inspect the load, takes a photo of it and estimate how full the truck is. (There's less reimbursement available for partial loads.)

• On the way out, another photo is made to ensure the truck is empty and not getting a head start on the next load.

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