Where Does Hurricane and Storm Debris Go? All Questions Answered

Every strong natural calamity leaves a trace of destruction behind in the form of debris. It often contains a mix of wood, plastic, metal, drywall, oil, electronics, and plaster - all of it waterlogged. Large-scale natural disasters, like hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, have the power to generate debris in quantities much greater than the amount of waste many communities handle each year.

So, where does hurricane debris go, and why throwing it away like regular trash is unacceptable? Read on to find out!

Why Is Hurricane Debris Toxic?

The aftermath of a storm

Large scattered masses of rubbish and various remains mixed with contaminated water make storm debris too dangerous to be dumped together with the regular household trash

If such toxic waste ends up in an unlined landfill, it can contaminate groundwater. Besides, debris can become even more dangerous depending on its composition. For instance, the gypsum in drywall decomposes into hydrogen sulfide gas that, in turn, can cause severe poisoning and death.

Debris Sorting Strategy

Guidelines for sorting the debris

Residents whose homes have been affected by the natural disaster have to take the process of dealing with debris with all seriousness. Everything that was destroyed during the emergency, especially items affected by water, must be removed from the home as quickly as possible.

The waste should be sorted into six categories:

  1. Regular trash - normal household rubbish like food, packaging, paper, etc. This is the only category of garbage you can throw away following the usual procedure.
  2. Construction and demolition debris - furniture, lumber, drywall, plumbing, flooring, carpet, mattresses, etc.
  3. Hazardous waste - batteries, paint, cleaning chemicals, etc. Items falling under this category shouldn’t be disposed of the way other debris is, as they can create a fire hazard.
  4. Appliances and white goods - dishwashers, dryers, refrigerators, stoves, etc.
  5. Electronics - TVs, computers, printers, and other devices with a cord.
  6. Vegetative debris - logs, branches, plants, and leaves. Don’t place them in plastic bags!

The separated debris, except for regular household trash and hazardous waste, should be placed at the curbside for pickup. Make sure that each pile is not touching electrical lines, water meters, mailboxes, and fire hydrants. 

After the natural disaster, stay alert for updates and cleanup dates from the local media. Ensure that everything is at the curb for pick up by the announced date. Cleanup crews usually proceed from one street to another, collecting only the debris placed at the curb. The priority in hurricane debris cleanup goes to emergency access roadways.

Storm Debris Removal

A truck transporting the debris

The piles of damp debris waiting to be picked up in front of homes have a high chance of spreading mold, so fast cleanup is an absolute necessity.

The disaster cleanup professionals typically drive trucks equipped with backhoes and collect the sorted waste from the curbside. The debris is then taken to the designated areas approved by the local municipality. These facilities include:

  • MSW landfills
  • C&D landfills
  • Hazardous waste landfills
  • MSW combustion facilities
  • Hazardous waste combustion facilities
  • Medical waste incinerators
  • Wood-fired boilers
  • Electric arc furnaces

Normally, municipal landfills can accommodate small quantities of hazardous trash without a substantial threat to the environment. However, due to the extent of large natural emergencies, most counties have to collect such waste and use a staging area to store it before it’s disposed of by a contractor. Note that you have to contact local authorities separately to organize the pickup of hazardous hurricane debris.

Safety Tips for Dealing with Storm Debris

Debris piles during the cleanup after hurricane Harvey

When handling the debris sorting process and navigating in an environment that has recently suffered from a natural disaster, it’s essential to take every precaution possible. Here are some useful tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you place the sorted debris strictly in the designated places, avoid blocking driveways with it, and don’t stack it next to any other objects to guarantee its smooth pickup.
  • Keep kids away from the debris piles, as they can be extremely dangerous. Objects like broken glass, nails, and jagged wood can cause injuries. Besides, debris often attracts rodents and bugs, which increases the risks of nasty bites.
  • Don’t park your vehicle anywhere near the debris pile area to make it easier for the cleanup service operator to pick up all the waste.
  • When driving behind debris-loaded trucks, keep an adequate distance, as the materials can fly out, causing an accident or driving hazard.
  • There should be no open flames and lit cigarettes in close proximity to debris piles because they can contain flammable materials.

You can find even more detailed information on disaster cleanup and safety measures in our comprehensive guide.

Also, remember that you’re not recovering from a natural disaster alone. Teaming up with your local community for mutual help and support is extremely effective not only for cleaning up hurricane and storm debris but also for your emotional state.