Planning for Natural Disaster Debris Guidance

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Courtesy of US EPA - Environmental Protection Agency

Each year, natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and winter storms, challenge American communities. The National Science and Technology Council estimates that these disasters cost the United States $52 billion per year in the form of lives lost and property destroyed (2005). Natural disasters have generated large amounts of debris, causing considerable challenges for public officials. Debris is the waste stream resulting from a natural disaster and often includes building materials, sediments, vegetative debris, personal property, and other materials. Cleaning up this debris can be time-consuming and costly (FEMA, 2007). As with other federal agencies, EPA’s response pursuant to a disaster declared by the President is facilitated through the National Response Framework (NRF). Under the NRF, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is the coordinator and primary agency for Emergency Support Function (ESF) # 3, which encompasses among other responsibilities, the management of debris. EPA is a support agency to the USACE for ESF #3. Like other responding agencies, EPA receives mission assignments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to carry out activities in support of state and local governments. (See section 4.1 for further detail on the NRF and ESFs).

After a disaster occurs, communities are faced with the dilemma of how to use their existing capacity for recycling, composting, combustion, and disposal of natural disaster debris. Relying  on only one of these debris management options may not be sufficient to handle the overwhelming amount of debris generated by a disaster. Communities may need to develop additional staging and storage areas to store, separate, or process the debris before it is sent to a recycling, composting, combustion, or disposal facility. A disaster debris management plan will aid communities in determining the appropriate management options in advance of a disaster to avoid rushed or, ultimately, poor decisions. Although the recovery process may take a long time, perhaps even years, careful planning can significantly minimize costly mistakes, speed recovery, protect human health and the environment, and prevent the generation of additional waste. A plan identifying cost-effective debris management options and resources can save money. It also will increase control over debris management and improve administrative efficiency. The plan also may serve as a resource document in negotiating technical and financial assistance with FEMA and other agencies. Having a sound disaster debris management plan will expedite removal of debris—an important sign of recovery that residents will see. Expedited removal also will reduce dangers of fire, personal injury, and disease vectors.

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