Houston News & Search
Christopher Allison watched as the truck’s mechanical claw reached down to snatch his waterlogged box spring, a stack of flooring and the power cord of an old TV.
Then he headed back inside the flood-damaged Lake Forest home he shares with his grandmother in northeast Houston and returned to ripping wood paneling off the walls.
That stack would have to wait on the next round of debris trucks.
City and county leaders have dispatched dozens of waste crews across the region in recent days, responding to the mountains of furniture, hunks of drywall, cabinets and other water-ruined debris hauled to the curbs of flooded homes by thousands of Harris County residents.
Don’t want to wait on a truck?
Houston’s typical recycling, yard waste and heavy trash schedules have been suspended to focus on collecting storm debris, but the city’s six waste drop-off sites will be open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The only items those sites do not accept are household trash, which has returned to its standard collection schedule, electronics or hazardous waste, such as pesticides and paint. The six drop-off sites are:
North – 9003 N Main 77022
Northwest – 14400 Sommermeyer 77041
Northeast – 5565 Kirkpatrick 77028
Southeast – 2240 Central Street 77017
South – 5100 Sunbeam 77033
Southwest – 10785 SW Freeway 77074
The Westpark Recycling Center also will operate for those items only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day but Sunday.
In hard-hit neighborhoods like Allison’s, which sits near Halls and Greens bayous, the debris has formed man-made hedgerows that in some places break only for residents’ driveways.
Public officials stress the importance of removing Harvey’s wreckage, which Mayor Sylvester Turner has called a “herculean” task, both for public health reasons and for the mental health of the storm’s victims.
“No matter how successful we have been up to this point, if we don’t finish the job, we’re not going to get a high mark, and that’s going to be determined by how quickly we can move that debris from in front of their house,” Turner said. “Because that will be a constant reminder of this storm.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said debris will be the issue over which residents are most likely to lose their patience.
“Everybody is fully aware that people want to get on with their lives,” he said. “That’s real difficult to do if you have a whole mountain of debris sitting in front of your yard.”
Turner has stressed that Houston must receive up-front funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the debris mounds to be cleared as quickly as residents expect, rather than spending its own funds and waiting for federal reimbursement.
That request is pending with federal officials, city Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday. The region did get a boost over the weekend when President Trump agreed to increase federal support for debris removal from 75 percent to 90 percent of the total cost.
While officials negotiate the finer points of disaster budgeting, Allison is just trying to work quickly so he can return his grandmother to her home and her prized glass and ceramic elephant figurines, lined row after row in a curio cabinet.
“The quicker I get it done, the faster I can get my grandma back in here. She’s ready to come home already,” Allison said, pausing to look around. “It’s OK. We’re just going to have a better-looking house now. That’s how I look at it.”
FEMA data show the county and all the cities inside it spent $242 million on debris removal after Hurricane Ike, $15 million after Tropical Storm Allison, and less than $5 million after Hurricane Rita and the recent Memorial Day and Tax Day floods.
Houston and Harris County City say Harvey will top them all, but offered few specifics; the city estimates it will collect eight million cubic yards of waste at a cost of more than $200 million.
Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose own home was flooded, mentioned debris removal in a lengthy Facebook post Sunday in which he noted he had received texts and emails from people wanting to be rid of their storm detritus.
“First responders have been busy saving people using what was formerly known as a dump truck, and next week will be known again as a dump truck, but this week is a people mover,” Cagle wrote. “They must be patient for their first responders are still rescuing others and people come before debris.”
Mayor Turner sent the first 14 debris crews out last Wednesday to Meyerland and Westbury. By Sunday, 44 crews were out, about half of them contractors. By Tuesday, trucks had reached nearly every corner of the city.
County Engineer John Blount said debris removal should take three to four months as crews make three passes across the county.
At least three city crews rumbled into Denver Harbor on Tuesday, where raised railroad tracks helped trap the water, flooding all but a handful of houses around Ricardo Martinez.
Martinez, a carpenter who lives next to his in-laws and three houses from his parents on Terminal Street, said all three of his family’s homes flooded.
He was impressed by the speed with which the city hauled away the first load of belongings he hauled to the curb, but they had to trash so many of his parents’ belongings that it will take two visits; the pile covered most of the front yard, and crews are not allowed to pick up anything outside the public right of way, which generally extends a few feet beyond the roadway.
Martinez also is waiting to see how much help he gets from FEMA before deciding whether to create another pile of wall paneling and floorboards in front of his house. No one in his family had flood insurance, he said, so they don’t know what they can afford to replace.
“It’s easier for the demolition than to put it back, because for demolition you don’t need to pay nothing,” he said. “To get it back, we’re waiting for FEMA.”
City officials advise residents to move their vehicles off the roads to make room for the debris trailers and to pile trash away from mailboxes, trees and fire hydrants. Demolition debris should be piled separately, they say, from downed limbs, junked appliances, electronics and hazardous waste such as batteries, lawn chemicals, motor oil, paint and pesticides.
Houston has suspended its normal collection of recycling, yard waste and junk waste to focus on storm debris. Those not willing to wait on city crews or contractors to get their gutted drywall or who grow tired of accumulating recycled items can visit any of the city’s six waste depositories between 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Part of Independence Heights, bordering Little White Oak Bayou and bisected by a drainage ditch, got clobbered. But Cliff Skillern, sitting on his uncle’s porch on Glenburnie, wasn’t concerned Tuesday that he had yet to see a city waste crew.
“They ain’t got over here yet, but there’s trash everywhere,” he said. “Their houses probably flooded out just like us. We just all got to stick together. They’ll get to us.”
Back on Allison’s street in northeast Houston, contractor David Ferguson perched on a swivel seat, operating the mechanical claw from the top of a roughly 12-foot ladder between the waste truck and its attached trailer, which can hold a combined 171 cubic yards of trash.
He swooped the claw back to the ground to drop the dangling TV – no commingling of electronics – and deposited the rest in the truck, topping off a full load. One block can require three trips to the landfill, or an entire neighborhood can be completed in one pass, said Patrick Timamo, a contractor monitoring Ferguson’s work and recording on his smartphone the precise location of each pile removed.
Ferguson, whose trailer carried a Missouri plate, said he had seen crews from five states so far.
“Everybody from all over the country is going to be here – until the next hurricane hits,” he said.
Emmett noted Hurricane Irma’s landfall – now projected in Florida – could hamper the removal of Harvey’s debris.
“Whether it hits the East Coast or the Gulf Coast,” Emmett said, “it will make our recovery more difficult simply because of moving resources to other parts of the country.”
Ferguson’s wife, Tami, who had been scrambling around arranging the piles of debris so her husband could better grasp them with the claw, sighed.
“These poor people, they’ve lost everything. And they’re coming out to give us water,” she said. “Bless their hearts. We’re getting to them as fast as we can.”
Mihir Zaveri contributed to this report
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