Helping People

After Irma, environmental groups mobilize to clean up debris — on shore and streets

Joseph Reiter, 10, finds garbage by the coast during International Coastal Cleanup day, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2017. Virginia Key Beach Park. (R) Joseph's mom, Jill Reiter.
Joseph Reiter, 10, finds garbage by the coast during International Coastal Cleanup day, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2017. Virginia Key Beach Park. (R) Joseph's mom, Jill Reiter. For the Miami Herald

Hurricane Irma turned streets into rivers, snapped trees in half, displaced thousands and hit South Florida’s infrastructure with thousands in damages.

While the storm bombarded the roads with debris and swept sand from the beaches, it also sparked a change in some of Miami’s top environmental nonprofits, which modified their goals and event schedules post Irma.

Organizations, like Miami Waterkeeper, were “inundated with requests” from volunteers after Irma, director Kelly Cox said.

“Major storms, like Irma, create a paradigm shift in the giving culture in the community that’s impacted,” Cox said. “Not only do you see a lot of folks mobilize on the volunteer front, but you see folks give financially.”

After Hurricane Irma, Miami Waterkeeper and the City of Miami Parks Department hosted a clean-up at Kennedy Park in Coconut Grove. Volunteers collected more than 1,350 pounds of trash and storm debris, considerably more than the 200 to 300 pounds they would normally collect. Miami Waterkeeper

Waterkeeper’s first cleanup after the storm was in Coconut Grove’s Kennedy Park in late September, where more than 100 volunteers picked up 1,400 pounds of trash, seagrass and decaying marine life brought in by Hurricane Irma. The average amount of trash Waterkeeper collects on a cleanup is around 200 to 300 pounds, Cox said.

“She was kind of a blessing in disguise,” she said, referring to Irma. “There was a shift in our programming which will continue with the next two months. It’s been pretty significant.”

The second cleanup was at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Coconut Grove, before the property reopened to visitors. Waters from the storm reached the museum’s café windows, and the mangroves were full of debris, trash and even a swept-away jet ski.

Cox said since other county parks and destinations are closed because of debris, she’s working to schedule more volunteer events to accommodate the demand for help, like a “Keg and Clean” event and a bar crawl in partnership with Wynwood Yard and Debris Free Oceans, another environmental nonprofit agency.

“We need to get more creative in the things that we do,” she said. “We’re trying to diversify the people we are engaging with.”

The group is also working to “amp up” education about storms, their environmental impact and resiliency measures that can help South Florida withstand storms in the future.

“There’s going to be a long-term need for these volunteers to help everyone get back up on their feet,” Cox said. “With climate change, the intensity and frequency is only going to increase.”

The education director of Debris Free Oceans said the recent storms have shown people the severity of the situation.

“The hurricane is bringing light to a situation we’ve been trying to bring light to for a long time,” Tracy Nolan said. “We were obviously not thankful for the hurricane, but we wondered if it was a platform to get people aware of how much trash is really out there. We hope it’s a wakeup call to understand the debris and create more awareness.”

Kids pick up garbage during International Coastal Cleanup Day, on Oct. 22, at Virginia Key Beach Park. Miami Waterkeeper sponsored the cleanup. Alexia Fodere For the Miami Herald

Debris Free Oceans shifted its focus from beach cleanups to land-based cleanups, since many of the beaches they usually visit — like Crandon Park and Hobie Island Beach Park— have been closed since the hurricane. Nolan said Irma inspired the group to create more awareness of Miami’s pre-existing trash problem in the streets.

“The cleanups put it right in your face,” she said. “The trash is everywhere.”

At the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to climate change advocacy, volunteers have been focusing on helping those in Miami “without safety nets” to prepare for a storm of Irma’s size in the future.

CLEO Institute Director Caroline Lewis said during major storms, those without shutters, plywood or generators got left behind.

“What Irma does is expose the sheer scope of vulnerability in our county,” she said. “If we had gotten a direct hit, we could have been Puerto Rico. We’re advocating for an equity lens in climate action.”

After the hurricane, CLEO volunteers tailored their “Climate 101” trainings toward social justice in the context of climate change. The trainings mobilize millennial-led Gen CLEO chapters and work with college chapters to better prepare Miami communities for another hurricane. They are also pushing counties and municipalities to create a city grid to ensure that everyone has a place to go during a storm.

“Irma created a sense of urgency around climate justice,” she said. “It has given us wings to spread this informed advocacy movement so that both the frontline communities and the professors and scientists are advocating for the same thing.”

How to help

Miami Waterkeeper


2103 Coral Way, Second Floor, Miami, FL 33145

Debris Free Oceans


CLEO Institute


11000 Red Rd, Pinecrest, FL 33156