Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Happens to the Debris after a Tornado?

In the middle of November the Midwest experienced a swath of severe weather including a late-season outbreak of tornadoes.  The damage extended from Missouri to New York, with 8 resulting fatalities and hundreds of houses and businesses destroyed.  After a tornado touches down, people are primarily concerned about their loved ones and if they survived and are safe.  Then the process of cleaning up and restoring homes and communities begins.  What exactly  does this process look like?  

Unlike what happens in the plot of The Wizard of Oz, tornadoes rarely pick up solitary structures and gently set them down again.  Pictures of tornado-struck communities show miles of debris - uprooted trees and vegetation, cars tossed sideways or upside down, houses with roofs missing, and wooden beams and planking everywhere, mixed with household goods, clothing, doors, windows, and drywall.  The debris from just one storm can be millions of cubic yards of waste.  When a tornado hit Joplin, KS in 2011, one landfill accepted 16,000 truckloads of debris.  That is an enormous clean up job, and a tremendous amount of material handled.  

Once the search for survivors ends and the last of the fires has been put out, the roads must be cleared so that utilities and FEMA (if the area is declared a disaster by the federal government) can get in to do their work.  After that, the first step in the process, sorting, begins.  Because landfills have limited space and it costs money to deposit debris in them, government agencies recommended sorting out whatever can be recycled.  Homeowners will return to their property and take what still remains that is useable, and after that what’s left is sorted and carted or carted and sorted in trucks and roll-off dumpsters, depending on how easily it can be differentiated.  The different categories of waste are:

  • Construction/demolition debris - this includes wood, drywall, bricks, tiles siding, and roofing shingles; all the materials that go into building
  • Household hazardous waste - these materials are the ones we are familiar with, poisonous and flammable materials that cannot normally be thrown away in the garbage bin including: paints, turpentine, herbicides and pesticides, other poisons, bleaches and cleaning agents, automobile oils and fluids, and batteries.  
  • Non-household hazardous waste - this would be toxic materials such as industrial wastes or unidentifiable site wastes
  • Animal carcasses
  • Trees and brush

Each of these must be treated differently according to their chemistry and disposability, so they require sorting before the they can be finally disposed of.  The options here, depending on material, are recycling, burying (of carcasses), rendering, outdoor burning, incinerating, landfilling, collecting for appropriate disposal (hazardous wastes), and using for fuel (roof shingles).  It’s a very long process to sort through mounds of mixed debris and determine what is still useful and what isn’t and then separate them out.  

Ultimately, much of the above will be landfilled, and so government agencies must determine which landfills can and will accept the onslaught of waste.  Landfills then dispose of the debris according their protocols, either grinding up, burning, or burying it.  Hazardous waste requires special disposal considerations and goes to different facilities.  

When all of the debris has been hauled, sorted, and disposed of, only then can the rebuilding - of a home, a business, a community - begin again.