Officials still grappling with Irma cleanup

Lee Herald Favicon 16Lee commissioners received progress updates on a wide range of issues the county is dealing with post-Irma during their workshop on Tuesday.

Debris removal has been a surprisingly large undertaking for the county, with Irma leaving an estimated three million cubic yards of plant-based debris in its wake, more than triple that left by Hurricane Charlie. Initial estimates by staff predicted the debris would take five months or more to remove at a cost between $55 and $60 million.

Even though commissioners encouraged staff to find ways to speed up the process, the county has run into some roadblocks. Hiring additional waste removal contractors could endanger the federal cost reimbursement the county would otherwise receive, which translates into tens of millions of dollars.

Lee has been working with its current contractors to speed up the rate of removal without violating FEMA reimbursement requirements by taking steps like opening up additional disposal sites. Workers are currently removing debris at a rate of 35,000 cubic yards a day and hope to hit 50,000 a day by the end of the month. As of Tuesday morning, the county had cleared 499,675 cubic yards total.

The county is also winding down shelter operations for those impacted by Irma. At their peak, county shelters held 35,000 through the worst of the hurricane. Most have returned home, but 154 residents are still being housed at the county’s final open shelter in Estero. That shelter is slated to close Friday, and occupants have been notified that they will need to have living arrangements in place by the end of the week. The Red Cross and other charitable organizations are working with many of those still left at the shelter to find temporary housing before the deadline.

Flooding was of course a big factor in the destruction brought on by Irma, with large numbers of homes in areas like Bonita Springs suffering damage from rising waters. Short term fixes, like clearing trees from waterways, are currently being implemented to help reduce flooding, but the county is focused on looking down the road to see if these kinds of events are preventable. Lee has contracted four different consulting agencies to conduct analysis on the different areas of the county.

County Manager Roger Desjarlais said that while many in the public felt there were simple answers to reduce flooding, the complicated nature of the area’s waterways and the unique nature of the extremely heavy rainfall before and during Irma required studies of this nature.

“What we’ve got is unprecedented events and the answers simply aren’t going to be simple,” said Desjarlais.

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