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Debris clean-up still a slow slog across Tampa Bay

Published Oct. 4, 2017

TAMPA — Several Hillsborough County commissioners are complaining about the speed of debris pickup after Hurricane Irma and said residents aren't being told how long they will have to wait.

At a board meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Ken Hagan said removal dates have been pushed back several times and asked why the county took down a digital map that told residents when their curbs might be cleared.

It's likely to be mid November before crews finish their first pass through Hillsborough, officials told commissioners.

"I see piles and piles of debris everywhere," Hagan said.

Ditto, said Commissioner Stacy White. And residents are confused about what they can leave at the curb, said Commissioner Victor Crist.

Meanwhile, the county may not be reimbursed by the federal government for some debris pickup because it didn't go through the proper steps before clearing some communities.

County Administrator Mike Merrill made that decision because he didn't want to wait several weeks to get approval from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

"I felt like for all the reasons that you noted, we need to get picked up," Merrill told commissioners. He said the staff is working with the county's congressional delegation to ensure full reimbursement.

Complaints about the pace of debris cleanup are being heard across the Tampa Bay area.

In Pinellas, county public works director Rahim Harji estimates it will be the end of October before the work is complete. Then crews will make additional passes through the county to make sure no new piles have accumulated. He acknowledged "there is a concern" that some debris could go airborne if another storm hits the county. The county, he said, has received calls about some of the bigger piles.

"We want to get those out of the way," Harji said.

Amid the cleanup, the county is finding that commercial tree companies are dumping fresh debris in rights of way in order to save on disposal costs, Harji said. For example, he said, crews have picked up debris three times from a location on Belcher Road. The county is now working with the Sheriff's Office to stop the violators.

As of midafternoon Wednesday, St. Petersburg had removed nearly 40,000 cubic yards of debris, said Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. It's unclear how much debris remains. Kirby referred an inquiry to a map on a city website that shows large swaths of the city still not scheduled for debris removal.

"More haulers have arrived. And more may still. Our pace will continue to pick up," Kirby said.

In Hillsborough, the cleanup began Sept. 18 — about a week after Hurricane Irma passed through the Tampa Bay area.

The problem, Merrill said, is the amount of debris left behind, which he described as "the size of Raymond James Stadium and the height of this building," meaning the County Center, a 28-story tower. And it is spread throughout a county that is the size of Rhode Island.

"Again, it's not an excuse, but it's just a fact," Merrill said. "It's been two weeks."

County staffers said they can post a map by the end of the week identifying which areas have already been cleaned and what neighborhoods are prioritized moving forward. The cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg and Pinellas County produced similar maps this week.

Merrill had asked the staff to remove a similar map from the county's website because he didn't "want to set expectations that we can't meet."

Commissioner Les Miller said people should be patient and know this will take time due to the magnitude of the storm.

Miller, who noted that his Tampa home still has debris on the curb, said city and suburban residents should be mindful that there are county homes near the Alafia River dealing with a lot worse.

"They need help," Miller said. "They had flooding. We lost limbs on trees."

Times staff writers Mark Puente and Charlie Frago contirbuted to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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