There is an indifference in the way a crane arm bluntly swings down and scoops up the sordid remains of a living room, a kitchen, a rec-room, an attic, and tosses them in the back of a dump truck. Disaster cleanup is, after all, business-as-usual for the contractors and workers hired to remove the mess left in Nashville after The Flood.
Since May 10, debris cleanup teams have been working seven days a week, sunup to sundown, sifting through the messes along Nashville’s streets and transporting the refuse to temporary staging sites.
The mountain of flood trash at Edwin Warner Park is an incredible, tangible display of the property devastation, a loss estimated at $1.56 billion in private property alone. The other temporary staging sites are at MetroCenter on Mainstream Drive and off Pulley Road near Nashville International Airport. And the piles will only grow as cleanup continues. Many Nashvillians have not gotten the debris out of their homes and onto the curb for pickup.
About 20 city crews are accompanying the 60 or so crews hired by Metro to collect the debris. They’re mostly out-of-state contractors — specifically, from Alabama and Missouri. The two main contractors, the DRC Group and Storm Reconstruction Services Inc., from Alabama, have subcontracted to a handful of other cleanup companies.
The crews are familiar with each other; workers see the same faces every time they head to a new location devastated by an event like the flood that hit Nashville.
They are also familiar with the process of disaster cleanup.
“As soon as they call you, you pick up your bags and leave the next day,” said Matt Schull of Walker Dozing & Excavating, based in Missouri. “I remember seeing the flood on the news and I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to Nashville soon.’ ”
But the response in Nashville has been much quicker than in previous jobs.
“We’re here about two weeks earlier than I think we need to be,” Schull said. “You’ve got to give people time to get back to their homes and clear out their debris. But maybe seeing these trucks will get people motivated.”
Though members of the cleanup crews said this is no Hurricane Katrina, the wreckage is on their list as one of the worst flooding disasters. John Walker, of the eponymous business, estimated crews picked up 12,000 cubic yards of debris on May 11. Once the cleanup is complete, the total amount of debris will be overwhelming.
“It’s probably the third-worst flood I’ve seen,” Walker said. “After Katrina and Cedar Rapids [Iowa].”
The mere presence of the 50 or so cleanup vehicles is a sign of the magnitude of the disaster.
“There’s got to be a lot of damage for us to bring these trucks down,” said Schull.
The process is simple.
Teams of ground workers pair with a driver to comb the streets using a map of a specific block of Nashville. The wheres and whens are based on maps devised by Public Works for regular brush pickup, which is done in 12 “brush zones,” or pre-determined routes, throughout the year.
Any debris — situated by residents into four segregated piles — is collected and taken back to one of three temporary staging sites. A team of monitors, one per truck, makes sure crews are not collecting any toxic waste. A monitor-signed ticket is required before debris can be unloaded. This should assuage fears that collection sites will be polluted by the flood-related refuse.
At the temporary staging sites, the debris is sorted into two initial groups. Natural refuse, such as fallen trees and branches, is separated from the manmade items turned to wreckage by flooding.
Once the streets are finally clear, the city must decide what to do with the ineffable amount of debris.
“It has to be sorted,” said Gwen Hopkins-Glascock, spokeswoman for Metro Public Works. “We just needed a place to put the debris, to sort it out and figure out the appropriate place to put them, whether landfill or C&D [construction and demolition].” A class one landfill is just for household garbage; a C&D landfill handles more significant debris.
The cleanup process is ongoing, and there is some disparity among estimates on how long it will take.
“We gave them [contractors] an initial deadline of 30 days for getting the debris off the streets, away from homes,” Hopkins-Glascock said.
The workers anticipate a longer stay. One expected to be in Nashville for five months. Walker said he’d “guess about two months.”
Regardless, the process of removing the flood refuse is a vital step of rebuilding.
“We’ll work until it’s done,” said Schull. “As long as they [Nashvillians] see these trucks, they’ll keep bringing it out.”
For more information about debris pickup, visit www.nashville.gov/pw