Those piles of storm debris aren’t going away. And companies are getting fired for it.

FPL workers continue to repair damage from Hurricane Irma

Florida Power & Light employees struggle to restore power Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, after Hurricane Irma left millions of customers without electricity.
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Florida Power & Light employees struggle to restore power Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, after Hurricane Irma left millions of customers without electricity.

In North Miami Beach, one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state was no match for the newest source of Miami rage: piles of storm debris.

AshBritt Environmental, a top storm-recovery firm out of Deerfield Beach, is represented by Ron Book, a top lobbyist in Tallahassee whose client list includes the city of North Miami Beach itself. But when AshBritt wasn’t removing debris piles quickly enough for North Miami Beach, City Manager Ana Garcia fired the company and offered up the contract to competitors in an emergency bidding session held Wednesday.

“She would rather let AshBritt go than adjust AshBritt’s rate,” Book said of Garcia. “They’ll get cleaned up slower because of what they did. She’ll have to explain that to her city.”

The break between North Miami Beach and Ashbritt represents one skirmish in a far larger battle involving the most prevalent legacy of Irma in South Florida: tens of thousands of debris piles clogging sidewalks, shielding driveways and generally steaming residents eager to see the decaying natural litter removed. While local governments have rules against mixing storm debris with household trash, the piles of branches and leaves are attracting garbage, too.

These contractors should honor their promises to Floridians and do their jobs when they are needed most. Exploiting this crisis at taxpayer expense is outrageous and will not be tolerated.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

“We’re getting inundated with hundreds of emails and phone calls daily from residents and business owners about the amount of debris,” said Vince Lago, a city commissioner in Coral Gables, which also employs AshBritt on a post-storm contract. “It’s a health hazard. I’ve received several emails today just dealing with rats and vermin.”

Irma debris 01 Ekm
Natalie Jaramillo, who works at the Biscayne Park School, walks by a large pile of debris that the Village of Biscayne Park is collecting in an empty lot just south of the new village hall. Emily Michot

Book blames unprecedented demand for debris-hauling crews in the wake of two massive storms: Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida. With Irma, the storm was so large that hurricane-force winds hit both coasts of Florida at the same time, downing enough trees to keep crews employed throughout the state.

With demand sky-high, Book said, the pool of debris haulers that AshBritt relies on to actually do the removal work have been dumping the company’s negotiated rates with local governments like North Miami Beach in favor of other governments paying more.

I get everybody's frustration, and we’re working to solve it.

Ron Book, lobbyist for AshBritt Environmental

But AshBritt and other large haulers are facing allegations of turning their backs on cities, which found their long-standing contracts for debris removal didn’t actually deliver after Irma struck. After locking up dozens of contracts across Florida months or years ahead of time, the large haulers now say they don’t have the subcontractors available to do the work without billing local governments far more than the original contracted rates.

“Our being proactive and prepared really did not work as well as we had hoped,” said Mayra Peña Lindsay, the mayor of Key Biscayne, which agreed to an emergency amendment to its contract with AshBritt to bring other haulers at higher rates. “You’ve got the entire state of Florida fighting for the same resources.”

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott on Friday night issued a statement condemning unnamed companies for failing to honor local contracts.

“The Governor is fighting for consumers, not businesses that are attempting to take advantage of our communities after a disaster,” said McKinley Lewis, deputy communications director for Scott. “Some companies are requesting the federal government to get involved so they can do the same work while charging taxpayers more money. This is not in the best interest of communities or taxpayers.”

Key Biscayne signed a contract with AshBritt in June that included a debris-hauling rate of $9 per cubic yard. This week it agreed to a second agreement that pays $15 per yard. That’s the same rate Miami-Dade pays its debris haulers, as cited in Key Biscayne’s new contract.

Irma debris 03 Ekm
The Village of Biscayne Park is collecting Hurricane Irma debris in an empty lot just south of their new village hall. Emily Michot

Miami-Dade bid out its rates after Irma, but only pre-qualified firms that competed for the contract well before hurricane season were eligible for the work. Among the companies clearing debris for Miami-Dade’s unincorporated areas is R.A.S. Investments Corp., a firm whose founders include two prominent players in local politics: Freddy Balsera, who owns a lobbying and public-relations firm in Coral Gables, and Sergio Pereira, a former Miami-Dade county manager who died last month.

R.A.S. was also one of the companies North Miami Beach hired this month to handle debris-clearing duties. A Friday email from Garcia, the city manager, said an emergency request for proposals yielded 11 bids. Three firms were hired. “Today we started a full-court press,” Garcia said Friday night. “We have three companies working, 28 pieces of heavy equipment and 11 crews. We’re making it happen with local companies. We’re not talking to a lobbyist on the phone or a vice president. We’re talking to the owners.”

Tree trimmers work along Southwest 14th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale on Monday to remove limbs damaged during Hurricane Irma. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

Book, the AshBritt lobbyist, said he is seeing the rates come down from the peaks that left his client unable to rely on crews needed to get South Florida’s streets back to normal.

“I get everybody’s frustration, and we’re working to solve it,” he said. “We never have had a storm anywhere in the United States where the cone literally covered the entire state. It’s not just Monroe. It’s not just Dade. It’s Broward. Palm Beach. Martin. St. Lucie. It’s Collier. It’s Lee. It’s Pinellas. It’s Hillsborough. It’s Duval. And on and on.”

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