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When Hurricane Matthew ripped across the western Atlantic and through the Southeast in late September and early October 2016, it was the first time in several years states such as Georgia and North Carolina experienced such devastation. After the storm, many counties in these states were left with damaged homes and businesses, extreme flooding, displaced residents, and plenty of debris to cleanup.

Pitt County in North Carolina, experienced little damage and went through a minor debris cleanup process, while Chatham County in Georgia called upon its Public Works Department and several volunteer groups to move fallen trees and clean up debris. These two vastly different results were the product of one element to be considered in terms of emergency management: preparedness.

“Prevention would be worth its weight in gold,” says Chris Baker, manager of emergency response for Stericycle Environmental Solutions, a Lake Forest, Illinois-based waste removal and emergency response company. “Do anything that you could do to prevent spills and think in terms of redundancy. He suggests “covering solid (waste) and powders, securing plastics and keeping the waste area cleared out.”

Stericycle keeps tabs on inclement weather, informing customers of potentially damaging storms so they have time to prepare by ensuring waste is enclosed or picked up before the storm.

$6 Billion in damages caused by Hurricane Matthew

“That’s what happened with Hurricane Matthew,” Maricha Ellis, vice president of Stericycle, says. “[The retailers we work with] have tons of locations in every city, and they were able to get ahead of the storm, so Chris and his team wouldn’t have to come in and do the cleanup.”

But those areas that didn’t have Stericycle’s service or preventive measures in place during Hurricane Matthew were responsible for their own debris cleanup after the storm.

Pitt County, North Carolina, pictured above, had little cleanup cost and damage to the area after Hurricane Matthew, in part because of its previously implemented buyout plan.


The last time Pitt County was so hard hit was September 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. The Tar River, which runs west to east through the county, caused 29-foot flood waters and severe damage, particularly in the town of Grifton, near the river.

“[Hurricane Floyd] led to a buyout program where the federal government will purchase an individual’s property, and the property owner can move to a less dangerous area,” Angela Brown, departmental emergency manager for Pitt County’s Emergency Management Planning Division, says. “That process helped us during Matthew.”

Hurricane Matthew was similar in that it caused the Tar River to bring 24.5 feet of water into neighboring cities. In Grifton, 28 feet of water flooded the area, but this time because of the federal mitigation in 1999, damage decreased.

Overall, around 100 homeowners sought the buyout option after Hurricane Matthew. “But that’s compared to several hundred during Floyd,” Allen Everette, director of the Pitt County Emergency Management Planning Division, says.

After Hurricane Matthew, the Pitt County Solid Waste Department was responsible for picking up the debris left behind. After assessing the area, John Demary, Pitt County Solid Waste Department director, determined it was a job he and his crew could handle on their own.

“When the storm came through, we decided that we were going to offer pickup for the affected areas, so I prepared a RFP (request for proposals) and sent it out,” he says. “Then, I rode through the area to map it and get mileage to see how the county was going to price it. I went to the county manager and said I could pick it up in a week, so we decided to use our equipment and go pick it up.”

Originally, Demary planned to conduct the cleanup over a couple of weeks, where in the first week he would go through the areas to pick up debris left out by residents or visible to his crew. A second run-through would be done the following week, but Demary says the first run-through didn’t even take a week to complete.

“The first one took us two, maybe three, days,” he says. “The second go-around, I sent out a pickup truck and identified a couple of spots where we sent a rear-loader and a couple of men to pick up debris.”

According to Demary, 98 to 100 tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, furniture, clothes and other miscellaneous debris that came from the homes affected by flooding were brought back to the county’s transfer station. From there, the debris was transported to the East Carolina Environmental Landfill, owned by Phoenix-based Republic Services, at a cost of $34 per ton.

“We were lucky,” he says. “There were some other counties that had worse damage than us. I’ve heard some are still cleaning up.”

Demary and his crew used five trucks and a 140 wheeled excavator from Norcross, Georgia-based Hyundai with a grapple attachment to pick up the debris. A couple more crew members followed the excavator with rakes and a rear loader.

If larger metal pieces were found among the debris, Demary says, the Solid Waste Department placed them in piles stored in-house before sending the metal to scrap yards. But, for the most part, the debris wasn’t recyclable.

“We [recycled] a little bit but maybe less than 5 percent,” he says. “We operate a C&D facility, but that debris was mostly insulation, and we don’t have an outlet for insulation.”

Cleanup took place during the first half of December and cost less than $10,000, Demary says. The county plans to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


Before Hurricane Matthew, Chatham County, Georgia, hadn’t experienced a large-scale hurricane since 1979, Chelsea Sawyer, emergency management and community outreach specialist for Chatham County, says. Because it had been almost four decades, much of the community was not prepared.

“This was the first time in a long time that we had any sort of damage like this,” Sawyer says.

The storm was considered Category 3 on the coast of Georgia and eventually downgraded to Category 2.

“We have a gorgeous tree canopy that started collapsing onto homes, apartments, condos and cars,” Sawyer says. “They’re older trees; they haven’t had these winds in several years.”

The storm caused around $62 million in damages to the county in what Sawyer calls a “debris-related storm.” Flooding happened in Fort Pulaski, but the majority of damage came from debris being thrown by winds, she says.

Multiple debris contractors that work within the city of Savannah, Georgia, partnered with other debris contractors in unincorporated Chatham County to clean up 1.6 million cubic yards of vegetation and 409 cubic yards of C&D debris.

“We had all of the vegetative debris that had fallen, but along Tybee Island and other areas affected by flooding, you saw a lot of couches, carpet, bedroom sets and things that weren’t usable anymore because of the flood,” Sawyer says.

Several nonprofit and volunteer organizations also participated in the cleanup process, Sawyer says. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for example, removed more than 300 trees on personal properties throughout the county.

The organization’s efforts were led by an online disaster relief database called www.crisiscleanup.com, where a person can call a toll-free number to request volunteer help. From there, volunteers use the website to find locations that need assistance near them. More than 100 cases were resolved through the website.

Robert Drewery, Chatham County Public Works director, attached a self-loader with a loader bed unit and trailered unit to remove the debris. The removal contractor had up to 158 combined units active at one time during the process.

The vegetative waste was run through a tub grinder, and the mulch was either sent to a local landfill or to a privately owned processing site for reuse. Around 29 percent of the waste was composted. The C&D debris was directly landfilled. Houston-based Waste Management’s Superior Landfill and Savannah Inert, a locally owned private inert facility, received the debris for a fee that ranged from $4 to $5.20 per cubic yard.

Debris removal in Chatham County began Oct. 13, 2017, and continued until Feb. 20, 2017, Drewery says. The official cost of debris removal was $25.35 million, and the county is expecting a large portion to be reimbursed by FEMA and the state, he says.

“All of our departments, jurisdictions and agencies were great,” Sawyer says. “We were fortunate that this storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” 

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at hcrisan@gie.net.