The trucks came from as far as Wisconsin and Florida, driven by people who are normally loggers but descended upon Louisiana after Hurricane Ida produced untold amounts of wreckage that needed to be hauled somewhere.

For parts of St. Charles, that place is a 9-acre plot in Boutte where DRC Emergency Services directed trucks of varying sizes to filter in and out Thursday to drop off tree branches, stumps, rotted drywall and the like -- and to haul the ensuing chipped branches and compacted trash to landfills. The trucks squeezed into the plot like Tetris pieces, between 30-foot piles of smoldering mulch and equally huge mounds of home wreckage.

The debris piled along roadsides across a large swath of south Louisiana is a painful and unsightly reminder of Ida’s wrath. But for a host of emergency management firms, contractors, landowners and monitors that are part of the debris economy, it’s a prized commodity.

Local, state and federal governments are likely to spend hundreds of millions picking up debris left by the storm. Debris collection is generally the government’s most costly hurricane-related expense.

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Storm debris is hauled to a temporary debris staging site in Boutte on Thursday, September 30, 2021. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

After Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year, Louisiana’s state and local governments spent about $250 million on debris pickup, according to estimates from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

DRC has snapped up a number of the prime contracts awarded by parish governments. John Sullivan, the firm’s president, said he thinks Ida likely produced a similar amount of debris to Hurricane Laura last year: 20 to 30 million cubic yards.

“This was a lot more wind damage than expected,” said Sullivan, who in 2016 bought DRC along with his brothers. They had worked as subcontractors for DRC before the purchase.

Managers, not haulers

In addition to DRC, the prime contractors for Ida debris include Florida-based Ceres Environmental Services, which is New Orleans’ contractor, and Alabama-based CrowderGulf, which holds contracts with a number of parishes. DRC and Cycle Construction, of Kenner, are handling Ida-related debris pickup for the state Department of Transportation and Development, which estimates it’ll spend $60 million clearing state roadways.

Those prime contractors don’t actually pick up much refuse. Instead, the debris bonanza attracts a swarm of smaller subcontractors from around the Gulf South and beyond. The lead contractors hire those subs to send trucks and workers around their respective zones and pick up debris. The prime contractors are in charge of logistics: They manage the project -- and they’re required to have the financial wherewithal to pay their subs while they wait, often months, for the government to reimburse them. Subcontractors often hire additional tiers of subcontractors.

The DOTD estimates about 3 million cubic yards of debris need to be picked up from state roadways after Ida, according to spokesperson Rodney Mallett. That compares to nearly 3.2 million cubic yards of debris the agency removed from roads last year, which saw Category 4 Hurricane Laura followed by the smaller Delta and Zeta.

Aside from the debris collectors, a network of companies and people also stand to profit from the huge undertaking.

In many cases, contractors pay private landowners for use of their property to “stage” debris, often so tree limbs can be chipped before being taken to a final disposal site. Dozens of such temporary sites have popped up after Ida; the state Department of Environmental Quality permits the sites and requires debris to be chipped, ground or burned before being taken to a landfill.

One such staging site, in LaPlace, is owned by Riverlands Residential LLC. Mary Becnel, a former district judge in St. John the Baptist who is among the firm’s registered officers, said CrowderGulf, a prime contractor in St. John Parish, contacted Riverlands about using the property. She declined to comment on how much the firm is making from the arrangement.

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Landfill owners, meanwhile, rake in enormous sums as the amount of refuse heading to their sites skyrockets. For instance, River Birch, the Avondale landfill company whose sharp-elbowed tactics got it notoriety in a debris bonanza after Katrina, is again among the landfills being showered with hurricane-related refuse.

DRC’s temporary staging site in St. Charles sat on land donated by Bayer Crop Science, which owns the Luling chemical plant where Roundup is made. While many of the sites across south Louisiana are owned by local governments, dozens are owned by private landowners, who generally charge rent to the contractors for use of their property. All the refuse flowing in and out of the Boutte debris site will end up at River Birch, DRC officials said.

Governments are also required to hire separate companies called monitors to make sure the original contractors are hauling the right debris to the right place. That expense will also run into the millions.

The federal government will ultimately pick up most of the tab for debris removal. Normally the feds cover 100% of the cost of debris removal for the first 30 days, but President Joe Biden recently extended that span to 45 days for Ida. After that, the state and local governments will be on the hook for a portion of the costs. Typically, debris removal takes around three months or more after a major storm.

A long slog 

In Boutte on Thursday, a couple of guys from the monitoring company DebrisTech, of Picayune, Mississippi, sat on a perch 20 feet in the air at the entrance to DRC’s debris site. Trucks stopped in front of it so the workers could gauge how full they were. Barcodes on the sides of the trucks were scanned so DRC could track them for payment, and the trucks dumped their refuse in the respective pile.

Big branches and tree limbs were stuffed into a chipper, which shot out mulch that smoldered with heat on huge piles. Excavators rolled over construction and demolition debris to pack it down. Before the trucks left, they had to stop by the monitor again to ensure they were empty.

In hard-hit Lafourche Parish alone, officials estimate they’ll spend almost $23 million on debris pickup. About 306,500 of an estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of debris have been picked up there so far.

DRC Emergency Services has landed “10-plus” prime contracts from governments in Ida’s blast zone, Sullivan said. Records show DRC holds the prime contracts for Terrebonne, Jefferson, Ascension, Tangipahoa, East Baton Rouge, St. James and Lafourche parishes, among others.

While the downed limbs, rotted construction materials and busted refrigerators that line the roadways represent big money for the companies charged with picking them up, the work often comes with a side order of grief.

DRC and other debris pickup firms often draw complaints from residents for not picking up debris fast enough, and local officials routinely pressure them to move more quickly.

Sulphur Mayor Mike Danahay, whose city spent north of $18 million on debris pickup after Laura and Delta last year, said it took five months to clear the streets. Danahay said he wasn’t surprised at the timeframe, given the sheer amount of refuse left by the two storms.

“There’s always that frustration with some residents -- that it’s not going quick enough,” Danahay said.


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