Tree trunks, limbs everywhere: Hurricane Sally’s debris will ‘exceed Ivan by quite a bit’
Posted Oct 16, 2020
Jerry and Sigrid Oaklief were unable to watch the spectacular sunsets from their front porch over Mobile Bay for weeks after Hurricane Sally pummeled coastal Alabama. Piles of debris blocked the view. Some of that debris remains, but piles upon piles continue to be pulled to the roadsides from Baldwin County’s coast to the northern part of the county. Residents in Mobile County have also been placing large tree trunks and shrubbery on the sides of roadways while waiting for overworked crews to remove it.
The existing debris is just part of the vegetative mess in coastal Alabama that was damaged from Hurricane Sally. Trees are visibly leaning, collapsed power lines are still laying on the side of streets and acres of farmland are still scattered with large limbs.
“I’m just wondering that if everyone starts cleaning up the woods and dragging it out to the highway, that this (cleanup) could go on for years,” said Jerry Oaklief, while sitting outside the Fairhope bungalow that he and his wife are temporarily living in after having to evacuate their Magnolia Springs home flooded during the storm.
Few streets in Baldwin County are without some sort of piled-up debris more than four weeks after slow-moving Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores and created widespread damage throughout the county.
Crews are working to remove both vegetative and household debris left over in the storm’s wake, but there is not a set timeline for completion and the ending dates vary from city to city and county to county. In Baldwin County, officials anticipate it could take well into March 2021, before the debris removal is complete. Mobile County officials are alerting residents to bring their all their debris to the side of the road by October 25.
“We are seeing the level of debris you’d see during a Category 3 storm from a vegetative perspective,” said Reid Loper, vice-president of Mobile-based CrowderGulf, a family-owned company with 50 years of experience in hauling debris from hurricane-damaged areas. The company has the contract to oversee debris removal for most of Baldwin County – Daphne, Fairhope, Spanish Fort, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Bay Minette, and the unincorporated portions of the county. The company also has a contract through the Alabama Department of Transportation to handle debris removal along the interstates and state highways.
Said Loper, “This was a much more significant debris event than what it has been displayed in the national media.”
225 football fields of debris
Hurricane Sally damage to Dauphin Island, Alabama. Sunken boats and heavily damaged docks at the marina. In coastal cities around Alabama, the cleanup of marina debris is expected to last for awhile. (Joe Songer | firstname.lastname@example.org).Joe Songer | email@example.com
And there are some indications that, once CrowderGulf and other contractors are finished, the amount of debris left over from Sally will exceed any hurricane that has hit Alabama in at least 40 years. The amount of debris is expected to exceed Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm that slammed into Baldwin County in 2004 and is often viewed as the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the county in recent years.
According to Loper, his company hauled 2.4 million cubic yards of debris following Ivan; and 23 days after Sally struck, the company has hauled an estimated 1.8 million cubic yards.
“When people think that operations are not moving as quickly as it should, they need to put it into perspective,” said Loper. “It’s been a long time since Baldwin County has been hit with a storm. Debris is a function of not only the intensity of the storm, but also the function and population and households. Baldwin County has grown quite a bit since 2004, when Hurricane Ivan hit. It’s definitely boomed. So, as far as ranking comparative to Ivan, I think the debris totals will exceed Ivan by quite a bit.”
The numbers that city officials throughout coastal Alabama are releasing are staggering. Some highlights:
In Bienville Square in the heart of downtown Mobile, one of the large oak trees ringing the central fountain broke off at ground level during the passage of Hurricane Sally.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
-Mobile, where scenic parks and historic neighborhoods were inundated with downed oak trees, city officials estimate that close to 70% of the estimated 381,360 cubic yards of trash and debris has been removed. According to a newsletter released Tuesday by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the amount of debris would cover more than 1 million square feet – enough to fill up the Mobile Civic Center Arena four times.
-Gulf Shores, where Sally’s eyewall made landfill, crews are about 70% completed with the clearing debris from residential areas. The city has 27 trucks working to complete the process which city officials hope is wrapped up in a few weeks. So far, 250,000 cubic yards has been removed by the city, which they estimate to be the equivalent of 225 football fields.
-Orange Beach, where homes were heavily damaged by storm surge from Sally, 65% of debris has been removed from city streets and sidewalks, but only 20% has been removed from waterways. As of Monday, 327,000 cubic yards of debris had been removed including 18,000 cubic yards from the waterways. The typical storm-generated marine debris includes destroyed piers, decks and boat houses, and personal property inside them that includes vessels, coolers, tackles, nets, and downed trees. According to Phillip West, the city of Orange Beach’s Coastal Resource Director, the city estimates that over 90% of all marine structures (such as docks, piers, and boat houses) suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Sally – i.e., more than 50% of their value.
-Fairhope, where massive oak trees were toppled throughout the Fruit and Nut District, work is ongoing to have the debris removed by November 19, which is the traditional “Lighting of the Trees” event in downtown Fairhope. As of Monday, the city was reporting that 113,000 cubic yards of debris had been removed.
-Foley has contracted with Auburn-based D&J Enterprises Inc., for its post-storm cleanup. As of Monday, the city of Foley had removed 322,000 cubic yards of debris while removing 501 leaning trees and 4,139 limbs, according to City Administrator Mike Thompson.
-Robertsdale contracted with TFR Enterprises of Austin, Texas, for its cleanup. Mayor Charles Murphy, on Thursday, said he anticipated the company finishing up its work within the next seven days, after which city work crews will be charged with further debris removal.
Public safety concern
Officials in Baldwin and Mobile counties remain concerned about public safety as the mounds of debris continue to pile up. Mobile County officials are asking the public to be mindful when placing debris near the roads. They are also concerned over piles of debris building up in the ditches, which could block the flow of water during rain evens and lead to washouts of roads and driveways. County officials are also encouraging people report a dangerous situation through email at HurricaneSallyDebrisRemoval@mobilecountyal.gov or to call 251-574-4930.
Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said while there hasn’t been any public safety incident from the debris, he is concerned about it.
“Most of this debris is put on the right of way and individuals need to make sure that they are keeping the debris away from the fog line of the roadway,” said Mack. “There’s also an increased concern as the debris continues to age of possible fires. Individuals need to make sure they are not throwing anything from their vehicles such as cigarette butts or any other trash into these piles.”
A burn ban remains in effect until October 31.
Mack said that peanut harvest season in Baldwin County is also likely to create additional traffic hazards.
“A lot of agricultural equipment is being moved on the roadways,” said Mack. “Due to the debris on the side of the road, this may cause an additional traffic hazard. Individuals are asked to pay particular attention to any agricultural equipment and when able to pull off the roadway and allow the agricultural equipment to get by.”
The debris cleanup is being financed largely by the federal government after President Donald Trump declared a federal disaster for 13 counties in Alabama. The declaration allows for individual and public financial assistances from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For debris cleanup, 75% of it is reimbursed through FEMA assistance while the state and local governments pitch in an additional 12.5%.
Counties and cities are providing loose estimates on how much the cleanup will cost, acknowledging that they won’t know the extent of the expenses until the project is completed. Gulf Shores, for instance, estimates their debris removal costing around $8 million. Mobile County is estimating a cleanup cost of around $6 million.
In Daphne, original estimates were around $2.5 million but Mayor Dane Haygood anticipates it could be higher. He said the costs to the city are expected to run around $350,000 to $400,000, which he describes as “unexpected” but “very manageable.”
“We implemented a reserve policy and set aside $8 million,” said Haygood. “Between COVID and the hurricane, this is why we have a reserve to make sure we can make it through the rainy days.”
The FEMA involvement in the cleanup is one of the reasons why the process of removing the debris can seem meticulous.
Loper, with CrowderGulf, said the company has set up 19 debris management sites (DMS) throughout Baldwin County where the debris is hauled, measured, and ground down into wood chips where it’s hauled to a landfill. At each DMS is a third-party monitoring firm – hired through separate contracts by each governmental entity – that measures the volume of the debris that is collected within each truck.
“That’s how we are paid – on volume of debris hauled,” said Loper. “We are not paid by the hour, but we are paid on the actual volume of debris that is hauled.”
He said that CrowderGulf subcontracts with crews that the company has worked “with us for 20-plus years” and who are familiar with the rules and regulations set by FEMA.
CrowderGulf’s trucks and its subcontractors, according to Loper, will handle approximately three passes through streets in the cities where they are working. Haygood, in Daphne, said he anticipated the first pass through his city to be completed by the weekend.
The time frames toward completion will vary, Loper said, based on a city government’s desire and how robust a public works department is to handle the continued operations.
“Some cities collect for a long time, other places want three straight passes and no matter what is left, they will say, ‘go home.’”
Haygood said in Daphne that they want CrowderGulf to make additional passes, and to continue doing the work “for at least 60 more days.”
“I want to make sure we are giving citizens time to get their debris,” he said. “For some, it’s a financial burden or a physical toll to get the trees cut up and taken out to the road. Our aim is to have a second and a third pass.”
Loper, who has been with CrowderGulf for the past 10 years, calls Hurricane Sally’s cleanup a “citizen-driven event.” He said that estimates on the amount of debris collected and hauled will change “quite a bit” as more of it is hauled to the roadways and removed during subsequent passes through the county.
All told, more than 300 trucks are rumbling through Baldwin County daily. Loper said the company is doing about 4,000 dump truck loads of debris each day.
“Typically, for a total debris collection operation, people are looking along the lines of three to four months with the county taking a bit longer because there is a much (larger) area of debris in the unincorporated area,” said Loper.