“You ever walk in pluff mud? Imagine trying to pull a boat out of that stuff.”
That’s how Beaufort County solid waste manager Jim Minor described the painstaking process of removing Hurricane Matthew storm debris from local waterways and marshes while on the job Tuesday afternoon.
The removal process — delayed for months after October’s hurricane — has finally begun in earnest, with county contractors scrambling to pluck half-sunken boats, destroyed docks, and floating logs from area waterways by early April.
“The logistics are tedious and involved,” Minor said as he tooled around the Skull Creek area of Hilton Head Island on a small boat surveying the debris. “You can’t just get rid of it all overnight.”
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First, crews must locate the debris.
Aerial drones and sonar are being used to find submerged material spread across roughly 170,000 acres of wetlands, Eric Larson, the county’s environmental engineering and stormwater manager, said.
Once crews find the debris, they load it onto boats — in many instances by hand — and ferry it to dumpsters on the mainland where it is “compressed into the containers,” Minor said.
“Most of (the debris) is chemically treated lumber, so it has to be disposed of and can’t be burned,” he said.
The material is then trucked to one of two nearby landfills, he said.
Deputy county administrator Josh Gruber recently told members of Beaufort County Council that staff expects to pull at least 10,000-cubic-yards of junk from local waterways.
Crews with AshBritt, Inc., a Florida-based contracting firm, are pushing to get as much of that work done as possible before April 2, the eligibility deadline for cost reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While the county is nearly finished cleaning up debris on land, a dispute with the state — ultimately settled by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office — over responsibility for marine debris resulted in a late start.
County leaders expect the full cost of marine debris removal to exceed $5 million.
So far, none of that amount has been reimbursed, and it remains unclear when the first check will arrive.
“It’s very hard to pin (FEMA) down on a date,” Gruber said.
Not only is it important financially to complete the removal as quickly as possible, it’s a safety issue as well, county officials say.
“We’re a big boating community,” Minor said. “... Any of this debris can become a floating hazard.”
“We are still asking all the folks out on the water to be cautious because there is still debris that gets loose” and can cause damage to boats or injure swimmers, he said.