After Hurricane Irma blew through Miami, knocking down trees across the city and leaving small mountains of branches and dead leaves in its wake, Miami had to scramble to clean up all the waste.
Within days of the storm’s passing, city officials more than doubled the rate they paid contractors to pick up storm debris. Now they’re talking about paying more still in order to quicken the pace of the work — even if it means stealing their neighbors’ crews and eating more of the costs.
Miami commissioners on Thursday passed an emergency item allowing their administration to hire new contractors without seeking their express permission, and gave them the leeway to further hike their rates for debris removal in order to attract more companies regardless of whether FEMA objects. Doing so, they hope, will dramatically shorten the timetable of a cleanup that after more than two weeks has yet to clear 20 percent of the waste left behind by the storm.
“If we go a dollar above [what FEMA will reimburse] everybody will flood to the city of Miami,” said Commissioner Francis Suarez. “It won’t be reimbursable. Let’s not kid ourselves. But we will get our city clean. And it will be protected in the event there is another storm, which I think is a huge issue.”
City engineers estimate Irma left behind 700,000 cubic yards of tree waste in the city — basically an entire year’s load crashing down in one weekend. The city’s own crews are woefully over-matched, so it has hired two prime debris contractors working on a previously existing contract. They, in turn, have hired an unknown number of subcontractors.
But the hurricane cut a swath across the entire state, leaving a majority of cities and counties in Florida with the same conundrum. Cash-strapped communities to the north have complained that their contractors are chasing higher-paying jobs in South Florida and shirking contracts. And now, with a finite number of vehicles and crews able to perform the work, Miami would potentially engage in a bidding war with its own neighbors.
Keep in mind you’re going to be stealing [crews] from one of the other municipalities.
assistant city manager
“Keep in mind you’re going to be stealing [crews] from one of the other municipalities,” said Nzeribe Ihekwaba, assistant city manager.
Irma hit Miami on the weekend of Sept. 11. Since then, Ihekwaba said the city estimates it’s picked up 122,000 cubic yards of debris, three-quarters of it cleared by private companies. Last week, after initially saying that removing the entire load could take six months, Ihekwaba said the city had doubled its rate from $7.22 per cubic yard to $15 and convinced its contractors in turn to double their efforts in the city.
Still, while city records show neighborhoods like Morningside have been mostly or entirely cleared of debris, streets in parts of Shenandoah are walled by piles of branches. Parts of Liberty City, Little Haiti, Allapattah and Center Grove show little to no evidence that cleanup work has been conducted.
Ihekwaba defended the city’s response, saying crews are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The overarching problem is that there is a limited supply of crews and trucks to pick up the waste. The $15 the city is currently paying for pickup is roughly the going rate around Miami-Dade. It’s what the county pays on average, and just about what North Miami says it pays. Coral Gables shells out $25 per cubic yard, but that not only includes picking up debris but also mulching and drop-off.
“The basic issue now is the availability of trucks. They’re not going to fall down from the sky,” he said. “The Gables pays higher [rates.] But paying more money doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get a higher rate of production.”
Chairman Keon Hardemon warned that the city, which has spent at least $5.3 million and counting on storm preparation and cleanup, could be setting itself up to bear more of the burden. He said the city’s real goal should be to turn more of the lower-paid subcontractors into prime contractors, thereby increasing demand from the crews that hold the vast number of equipment and manpower.
Annie Perez, Miami’s purchasing director, said FEMA doesn’t have a set rate that it reimburses, but rather agrees to pay “market rate” for services on condition that the proper procedures are followed. The city consults with FEMA while making decisions on disaster-related expenses, Perez said.
Based on Thursday’s vote, Miami is now willing to pay what it takes to get its debris cleared faster, even if FEMA might object.
Miami Herald staff writers Lance Dixon and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.