Damage and Debris - The Difficult Decisions Involved

by Kirby McCrary

Following a debris-generating event such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or tornado, event-caused damage can be either widespread or concentrated, depending on the type and severity of the disaster.  The extent of damage will largely determine the numbers of recovery personnel who deploy to the disaster, and this influx of first responders and others rushing into the region to begin the recovery process can be as overwhelming to local residents as it would be if an army had decided to make the area its bivouac site for field maneuvers.  But a virtual army of varying specialists is sometimes needed to help restore critical elements of everyday life in as quick, safe, and efficient a manner as possible.

Two of the most specialized of those personnel are the debris-removal contractor and the debris-removal monitor, each of whom is critical to the recovery effort.  The contractor brings the equipment and personnel needed to open roads, collect debris from the roadway shoulders, and process and dispose of it by an approved means.  The monitor ensures both that proper procedures are being followed from start to finish during the process, and that the debris being collected is “eligible” for removal – meaning that it is the type of debris designated for collection by the specific contractor involved, that it comes from an eligible source, and that it is picked up or collected from a similarly eligible roadway shoulder.

The debris intended to be collected for disposal is typically pushed or dropped onto a road’s right-of-way or shoulder – but that part of the process has to be done in a way that does not interfere with restored vehicular traffic. Adherence to this rule may and frequently does result in the debris being placed within close proximity to public or private-sector property or various amenities and attributes – and/or encompassing features along the road’s shoulder that could create a conflicting situation for the contractor during his collection operations.

Those “amenities” include but are not necessarily limited to: (a) such private-property features as privacy walls, gates, fences, mail boxes, sign structures, drainage culverts, and hedges; and (b) such public-property features as utility poles, bus shelters, benches, and street signs.  If the contractor is not careful during the debris removal operation, those items and others can be damaged, or sometimes destroyed, during the collection process, in which case close follow-up procedures and the documentation needed for repair or replacement – and eventually final acceptance by the owner – also would be required.

Pushing, Positioning, and the Proper Setting of Priorities

The reasoning behind these rules is obvious: during the initial “pushing” operation, debris that has fallen onto and/or is blocking roadways usually is pushed onto the  shoulder with little concern for anything other than to open the roadway – which is almost always the first priority in such situations. This part of the contractor’s removal effort is urgently needed so that recovery personnel, equipment, supplies, and materials arriving on the scene during the recovery phase of the overall operation can find their way to the areas having the greatest need for outside assistance. 

The contractor’s pushing operation is usually followed in short order by the issuance of orders by a local government jurisdiction directing home and business owners to bring debris that has fallen onto private property to the roadway shoulder and to position that debris as close to the road as is safely possible – but, and of the greatest importance, without putting it onto the road itself.  Once those two aspects of the operation are underway and/or completed, it is almost inevitable that much of the debris now in position to be collected and removed will be in close proximity to various types of private and public property features. The conflict situation unintentionally created can easily lead to additional damage or complete destruction of those property features during the removal process, thus putting the contractor in the unenviable position of: (a) not having any control of where, specifically, the debris is positioned on the road’s shoulder; but (b) having to deal with the situation nonetheless.

The other type of damaged property for which the contractor also can be blamed is damage caused by the event itself.  During the debris removal and collection process, the contractor frequently will encounter instances in which damage has been caused by a fallen tree or large branch, or as a result of some large physical object being hurled by high winds into private or public property, or possibly being carried to that property by flood waters. In those and similar situations, the contractor had nothing to do with the damage that occurred, but could eventually be blamed for it by a property owner who does not have insurance and/or some other way of paying for repairs. Although it is certainly both desirable – and legally as well as ethically justifiable – for a contractor to accept financial responsibility for damage caused by his own operations, it is not reasonable to assign that same responsibility for damage the contractor did not cause.

Visual Evidence Often the Deciding Factor

To help resolve whatever situation applies, the debris monitor becomes the critical element.  The monitor should always be mindful of the area in which he or she is operating, particularly and specifically upon arrival into an area in which significant damage has occurred.  An initial and thorough survey of the surrounding conditions is required, therefore, both to protect the contractor against possibly frivolous claims of contractor-caused damage, and to ensure that any damage that was in fact caused by the contractor is reported promptly and handled expeditiously. This usually is accomplished by carefully documenting: (a) any damage that was/is evident prior to the contractor beginning his operations; and (b) any damage the contractor himself causes while conducting his debris-removal operations. 

Of particular importance to ultimate resolution of the various issues that might develop would be photographs or videos of the damage done, shown in the context of the area involved.  For example, when the monitor first arrives in a newly assigned area, if a privacy wall is found to have been damaged, and if a limb from a tree behind the wall appears to have broken and to have crashed into the wall (and is now lying on the ground), having photographs of the damaged wall that show the tree behind it and the broken limb on the ground would be powerful rebuttal material for any claim that the damage was caused by the debris-removal contractor.  Alternatively, if the monitor is a personal witness to contractor-caused damage, and properly documents it, the contractor will be unable to deny the damage and/or his resulting financial responsibility.

It is worth repeating, and emphasizing: All documentation – whether in the form of reports, photographs, video, or other medium – becomes part of the official records of the on-scene damage and can be used to resolve disputes about when the damage occurred and who is ultimately responsible for repairs, restitution, or reparation.

As with all other elements of a debris-removal operation, therefore, the accurate and complete documentation of all pre-existing damage, as well as all contractor-caused damage, is probably the only way to ensure a fair and equitable resolution of the problem that is (or should be) acceptable to all of the parties involved.

Kirby McCrary is the Director of Debris Services with iParametrics, LLC, headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia. A registered professional engineer in both North Carolina and Florida, he operates from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  He was heavily involved in debris-management operations in Florida during the 2004-2006 hurricane seasons and, following Hurricane Wilma, oversaw all debris-removal and monitoring activities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on behalf of the Florida Department of Transportation.