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Disasters Strike in Many Ways

July 3, 2012

When natural disasters hit, of course we immediately feel for the victims. As the days go by, our thoughts continue to be with those who are suffering; however, as solid waste professionals, we can't help but wonder about all the debris generated by the disaster.

While traveling recently in the Pacific Northwest, I was also struck by the longevity of disaster debris and the many ways it can impact us. Debris from last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan began washing up along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, alarming residents, environmental scientists, and government officials. Some 1.5 million tons of debris is estimated to be heading toward the Pacific Northwest beaches. The primary public concern was that the debris potentially holds invasive species that could pose a serious threat to marine environment and native species. Government official concerns were about how will handling the debris be paid for in today's tightening budgets. Lawmakers in the Northwest are asking for federal emergency assistance, a new twist in emergency management funding. Cleanup costs are unknown, but expected to be high.

The debris, including a 132-ton concrete dock that washed ashore at Oregon's Agate Beach State Park, does indeed contain millions of tiny and not so tiny organisms, including mussels, barnacles, and other shellfish, along with algae, and kelp. Many of these are new to the Northwest and feared to be invasive.

Staggering amounts of Debris

Meanwhile in Japan, cleanup continues. See some amazing "before and after" pictures posted in March, one year after to disaster. It is estimated that a full 16 years' worth of that country's waste was generated during the few short minutes of the earthquake and tsunami that hit that country in March 2011—some 100 million tons. The debris contains not only the usual mix of metal, wood, automobiles, and personal belongings, it also contains asbestos, hazardous materials, and radioactive waste. The country has almost no landfill space left, relying instead on recycling, incineration, and export to handle all the debris.

Closer to home, the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in May 2011 generated 3 million cubic yards of waste, including vegetative debris, white goods, and large volumes of mixed trash. One week after the tornado, residents were asked by Joplin officials to separate their debris and put it at the curb for collection. A contractor collected the separated waste and transported it to a staging area to be prepared for recycling or disposal. By the time the material was separated, 156 tons of electronic waste, 257 tons of white goods, 212 25-pound propane tanks, 250 pounds of refrigerants, 400 cubic yards of processed vegetative debris, 57 tons of household hazardous waste, and 80 tons of general waste for disposal.

True Human Qualities

The resiliency of people in the face of disaster is inspiring. To deal with such loss and yet sort through the devastation in order to separate materials for proper waste management exemplifies some of the best human qualities we have to offer. Neighbors and even out-of-towners helping each other cleanup and rebuild is another.

Words to Consider

Disasters will unfortunately continue to hit us, whether directly or indirectly. As humans, we will need to deal with the emotional loss. As professionals, we can do our part to help our communities be better prepared to deal with the inevitable debris. For now, I leave you with the following…

  • Long after the disaster is gone, the debris remains.
  • You can't reduce the amount of debris, but you can reduce the impact.
  • Government & public preparedness can help!

There will be more to come in future NERC Blogs on disaster preparedness. In the meantime, check out NERC's After the Disaster: Managing the Debris.


By Athena Lee Bradley

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