Debris pickup issues leave residents worried about health hazards

HOUSTON – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in the first month since Hurricane Harvey hit the city, contractors have picked up more than 700,000 cubic yards of debris.

However, while work is being done, many homeowners complain that the endless piles of trash and debris that line their neighborhoods are both an eyesore and a health hazard. Contractors said the rates that the city is willing to pay for removal are not enough to cover the cost of cleanup, causing them to have to leave town for more sustainable work.

"We came here. We want to help, but it's really hard for us to do everything right now. Financially, we are losing money," said Christopher Defeo, owner of Defeo Materials, a contracting company from Connecticut.

Defeo said many contractors are finding that traffic is keeping them from getting to dumpsites, slowing down the process and lowering the take-home pay, since they get paid by cubic yards.

"I actually have three trucks in Alabama, and I'm unsure whether we're going to send them back to Connecticut because we're just not making the fees we should. If you look at the site behind me, you can see there's no trucks here, but with the traffic, we can't get there," said RJ Ennis, owner of RJ Transportation, a contractor also from Connecticut.

Their driver only has one dump site, located 30 minutes from Wednesday's site, but it takes more than an hour to get there, according to one of their drivers.

Meanwhile, Turner said debris removal is a top priority and six months is too long to wait for the process to be completed.

"That is unacceptable, at the very least, let's try to cut that in half," Turner said.

Houston City Council extended its main debris removal contract and added $60 million to the agreement -- which comes from FEMA, the Rainy Day Fund and insurance -- to help speed things up. Criticism has risen from where that money actually goes. Half of it goes to monitors, the people who decide how full each load is.

"The people picking up the truck and with all their expenses, their trucks, their gasoline their labor, they're only about to get half the money, and the people who don't even own trucks, who have contracted this out, are getting half the money, who have little expenses at all," councilman Michael Kubosh said.

Turner said it's a necessary process to get reimbursed from FEMA. Turner also worked on raising the contractor's rate to $11 and change -- up from about $7.

"We asked what steps we needed to do to get a higher rate. They told us we needed to do like a market survey," Turner said.

"We were never compensated for the traffic wait times, and we can't get effective in getting the loads to the site in time," Ennis said.

Many contractors said it's still not enough, leaving residents worried more contractors will pack their bags and leave them in the dust.

Contractors hope the city will work with them to make routes are more accessible to dump sites so they can make more loads.

Neighbors are worried that if the garbage stays, it'll become a public health issue.

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