Two months after Hurricane Irma ripped through South Florida, while debris cleanup efforts have been slow but steady in most parts of Miami-Dade, thousands of homeowners are still dealing with trash that most people can’t see.
The reason? Those homeowners live on private roads and in communities that learned weeks after the storm that they have to give special permission to the county to come clear their streets, based on federal guidelines.
County officials have made a push since late September asking homeowners associations and property managers — representing about 75,000 homeowners on 1,600 miles of private streets — to sign a waiver allowing county crews and contractors to come onto private roads and clear out the debris. The deadline for submitting the waivers is Nov. 17.
The county has been clearing debris on those private roads as the waivers come in, said Gayle Love, spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Solid Waste Management, but there are still many private streets in West and Southwest Miami-Dade with heaps of debris out of the public’s view.
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Love said that county officials tried to make the case to FEMA that the department normally handles trash collection in those areas but the agency wouldn’t budge on requiring the waivers. The federal agency is stepping in between the county and its regular customers because it will reimburse the county for the cost of cleanup work that the storm created.
“For some of the residents this may be taking a little longer, but there are guidelines and we have to follow those guidelines,” Love said.
The county didn’t know the “right to entry” waivers were required until shortly after the storm hit, Love said, adding that officials got the paperwork out to the associations in late September and early October. In the past few weeks they have stepped up efforts to reach those associations that haven’t responded.
Some associations hired their own contractors to take care of the debris, Love said, pointing to pockets of Doral and Miami Lakes.
“If they chose to push everything out on the public right of way, that was an option as well,” Love said.
But there has been some opposition.
Maria Luisa Castellanos, a board member with the Greenway Lakes association in Southwest Miami-Dade, said that her association won’t sign the waiver. She thinks that it gives too much leeway to the contractors if something goes wrong during cleanup.
The “right of entry” form has a clause that says “the property owner(s)/agent agree(s) to indemnify and to hold harmless the governments/contractors for any damage of any type” to property and for any serious injury.
“If one of these trucks runs over three kids and a dog, how are we going to indemnify that?” Castellanos said. “We’re not going to sign this thing that makes us liable.”
As piles of debris continue to grow in her neighborhood, Castellanos said the county shouldn’t put reimbursement before taking care of residents.
“Just because they want to save money, they’re sacrificing us,” Castellanos said.
Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Joe Martinez — whose district includes Castellanos’ neighborhood — said that they haven’t heard much opposition to the waivers and hope more associations will sign them by Nov. 17. Their districts include large concentrations of “in progress” cleanup, according to a county map of debris clearing progress.
“The bottom line is, if you do not want to sign [the waiver], you will have to clean up the debris,” Martinez said.
Castellanos said her association would be willing to sign the waiver after cleanup but not before.
Debris pickup has remained a sore subject for residents after Irma. Most areas are expected to be cleared out by the end of the holiday season. Local officials have blamed strict FEMA guidelines and difficulty finding crews as part of the reason for the slow progress.
The massive undertaking in Miami-Dade County has included hauling 3.7 million cubic yards of debris. And after complaints of a debris staging area encroaching on a residential community and disturbing residents in Liberty City, the county has worked to speed up shredding down the debris at those sites.