Volume of Hurricane Sandy debris at Jersey Shore overwhelms officials, cleanup crews

The parking lot of the Links at Brigantine Beach golf course in Brigantine, N.J., has become a temporary makeshift landfill.
The parking lot of the Links at Brigantine Beach golf course in Brigantine, N.J., has become a temporary makeshift landfill. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 20, 2012

BRICK TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Waterlogged mattresses, torn chunks of drywall, pieces of someone's garden trellis, and carpet - carpet everywhere - heaped high into the sky in the parking lot of a shuttered supermarket.

Three stories and growing by the day.

Standing to the side Thursday afternoon was Nate Johnson, one of many coordinating the fleets of trucks traversing this Ocean County shore town loaded with the wrecked contents of people's homes.

"We're going to be here a long time," he said.

Three weeks after Sandy drove floodwaters across the New Jersey and New York coastline, officials are grappling with the task of what to do with the debris accumulating on roadsides as residents go about the task of trying to get their homes habitable again.

Though less than a tenth of what was left behind by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the 7.1 million cubic yards of refuse the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates Sandy created in New York and New Jersey could fill seven football stadiums. What to do with it, quickly, is a massive challenge, officials say.

"Normally, people will put out a couch or a chair once a year. But now it's everyone in the affected areas dumping everything all at once," Brick Mayor Steve Acropolis said. "I've been driving around with a hand video just for history's sake. People aren't going to believe the task we undertook."

For now, contractors are dumping the stuff in growing piles that suddenly have become as much a part of the Jersey Shore landscape as Lucy the Elephant and Atlantic City's towering casinos.

How long they will remain is unknown. The mountains of debris around New Orleans after Katrina became a galvanizing symbol as the late-summer heat and festering trash cast a pall over neighborhoods.

"In some areas of the city, 18 months later they were still clearing up," said LuAnn White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"There were major concerns with rodent control," White said. "You had all this garbage. We had mosquitoes. It was hot as Hades here for a long time."

No one expects the East Coast cleanup to take nearly as long.

AshBritt, the Florida disaster-recovery contractor that won an $850 million cleanup contract after Katrina, has been hired in New Jersey and told by Gov. Christie that he wants the bulk of the Shore debris cleared by Christmas.

Whether that timeline is feasible is unclear, but the task is far less daunting than the one created by Katrina, generally considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, those who were involved there say.

"It's a different animal," said Jared Moskowitz, general counsel for AshBritt. "We will do our best to make sure things are as back to normal as possible by the holiday season."

The expedited timeline has some environmentalists worried that those involved may take shortcuts that will negatively impact the environment for decades.

Louisiana suspended some environmental regulations and reopened landfills that had been closed due to their proximity to residential areas. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said that would not happen in New Jersey.

"We're trying to do this in as environmentally responsible manner as possible," he said. "It's not anarchy out there."

But the sheer volume of material to be disposed of makes it inevitable that some hazardous materials will end up in landfills, and items that should go to recycling centers will be set out with the household trash, experts say.

"They're saying you have to follow all the regulations, but it's unclear whether that's actually happening right now. The only way to know is to watch it, and there's just so much going on," said Al Huang, senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

"When disasters like this happen," he said, "the last thing you want to do is create legacy disasters."

For those managing the cleanup, the question is where to put everything. The volume of refuse is only expected to increase in coming months as the estimated 10,000 homes that were flooded are torn down or gutted, according to AshBritt.

New Jersey's system of landfills and incinerators does not have the capacity to handle all the debris. Much of it will shipped west by rail and truck to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania that already take a good proportion of New Jersey's waste.

In the meantime, the Garden State is considering creating regional collection centers if towns and contractors fall behind transporting the debris.

Along one of the lagoons that extends from the Atlantic Ocean into Brick, neighborhoods were slowly coming back to life last week. Tree limbs still covered yards and many residents were confined upstairs while the ground floors of their homes were repaired. But thanks to the flow of trucks in and out, litter was disappearing off the roads.

On his rounds, mail carrier Brian Barrett was dropping letters and bills in mailboxes that three weeks ago were submerged. More recently, he said, the neighborhood was swamped in a different way.

"This street was completely lined with garbage, so there's progress," he said. But "I'm still seeing mud in the mailboxes."


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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