TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's transportation secretary is giving his agency a passing mark for debris removal after Hurricane Irma.
But with debris still along some roads, particularly in pockets of the Florida Keys, Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew said officials will look at how they can improve before the next storm.
“I think we did an effective job, but I think we can always do better,” Dew said Thursday during a meeting of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.
The pace and cost of debris collection has been a point of contention in the government's response to Hurricane Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and then barreled up the state.
The Department of Transportation has spent $15 million on debris removal from state highways, with Dew expecting reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some of that money related to getting called in to help after local governments complained that debris haulers failed to honor pre-storm contracts as subcontractors went in pursuit of better deals in areas harder hit by the storm.
Dew, whose department will conduct a storm-response review next month, said he wants to see if language about penalties and liabilities can be strengthened in contracts with disaster relief companies.
“We had a couple of incidents in areas around the state where we were promised 25 cut-and-toss crews but maybe only 15 showed up,” Dew said. “I'd like to see some more teeth in the contracts so that we can rely on the numbers that are in there, because a lot of our critical planning relies on having those crews available to us.”
Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican whose panel is expected next month to make a series of recommendations that could lead to legislation, said debris removal might be one of those topics.
“I don't necessarily believe that that is a state's role to manage county-by-county contracts, but I think the state needs to take a long hard look at it and see what we can do at the state level to develop perhaps reciprocal agreements with other states,” Nunez said. “I believe there is a role to play. How much, that's yet to be determined.”
Other topics the committee has looked at include health-care facilities, evacuations, petroleum supplies, electric utilities, housing, agriculture, shelter management, education and beaches.
“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming session,” Nunez said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the '04-'05 season, legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”
A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found that 70 percent of Floridians rated the handling of the storm as good or better. Meanwhile, delays in debris cleanup resulted in 44 percent of the same people rating debris removal as fair or poor.
Last month, questions were raised about emergency debris-removal contracts issued by the Department of Transportation to two firms and whether the state was paying high rates -- three to 10 times in some cases -- for the work. Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has looked into claims that three other debris-removal companies hadn't fulfilled post-Hurricane Irma contracts.
After Democrats from Florida's congressional delegation last month asked questions about the emergency-debris contracting, Gov. Rick Scott's office said local communities had reported that haulers were not providing agreed-to services.
“After the storm, the governor heard from many local communities, including Monroe County, that many of these companies were not providing the agreed-upon service and were demanding higher prices. This is unacceptable,” Scott's office said at the time. “Monroe County asked for additional help to pick up debris following the storm. FDOT went above and beyond the requirements of Florida law and bid the contract to supplement their debris removal. Any other suggestion is false.”