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Lee County residents still frustrated with debris collection

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Kara Lefevre, chair of the Department of Ecology and Environmental Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University
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Special to WGCU
Truck collecting debris from Hurricane Ian.

The piles of trash and debris remaining on Southwest Florida residents' front lawns and lining their streets in the two months-plus since Hurricane Ian continues to produce questions and concern.

“It’s honestly depressing seeing all the things people have lost sitting in front of their houses,” Brannia Tomelic, a San Carlos Park resident, said.

Lee County has surpassed four-and-a-half million cubic yards of debris collected — more than 1,872 feet high or 418 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

LOTS OF DEBRIS: Lee County collects record amount of debris

Despite that amount of debris collected, homeowners across the county are struggling with the amount of time it has taken to collect the endless piles.

While Tomelic and her family received minimal damage from the storm, she said the debris in her neighborhood has yet to be collected.

“My fence was knocked down and my front and back doors cracked due to the pressure of the wind,” Tomelic said. “It’s going to be three months since Ian hit, and all of my backyard fencing and some tree branches are still stacked in front of my house.”

She expressed her disappointment and concern about the dangers the remaining piles of debris pose.

“It’s been very frustrating to sit and wait for the debris pickup trucks to come and pick up all the garbage that’s been sitting in front of my house,” Tomelic said. “I understand that other places have been hit harder than my neighborhood has, but it’s honestly depressing seeing all the things that people have lost sitting in front of their houses.”

A Lee County government news release said crews have cleared more than 3,500 miles of debris from Lee County roads — about the distance from Fort Myers to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and back.

Aside from highly impacted areas, such as Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, specialized debris trucks are continuing to collect more than 60,000 cubic yards of roadside debris and moving 20,000 cubic yards from management sites to final disposal each day.

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Michael Braun
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WGCU
Debris collected at the CrowderGulf/FEMA site off U.S. 41 in Estero is loaded for removal. Large sections of Hurricane Ian debris collected and brought to the site since the storm passed through have been removed in the past week.

“The Lee County team, including contractors, has collected material at a remarkable pace,” Doug Whitehead, Lee County Solid Waste director, said.

He said they are utilizing more processing sites than they have for any other storm before Hurricane Ian, and on some days they collected over 100,000 cubic yards worth of waste.

“The debris includes everything from yard waste and vegetative material to construction and demolition, which are the materials from buildings. Our debris hauler also is collecting appliances,” Whitehead said.

Cole Adkins, a South Fort Myers resident, said that his family’s downstairs flooded during Hurricane Ian, and they lost almost everything.

“We lost our air conditioning unit outside, and our water system outside was damaged pretty badly. The pile of trash had anything you could imagine in it – pool stuff, trash cans, house debris, couches, and couch cushions. Some of the things weren't even ours, they just ended up in our yard,” Adkins said.

However, Adkins said the trash outside his family’s home was picked up recently, after sitting for a month and a half.

“I think the pickup was faster than people really think it should have been. There was a lot more stuff than people thought. The only problem that the trash piling up caused was a dead patch of grass and a sight for sore eyes,” Adkins said.

Abby Cooper lives in a Fort Myers apartment with her husband. She says that they still have trash throughout the parking lot and the street to exit their complex.

“There was no damage done to our place, but there was glass by our front entrance that no one picked up. I had to clean the entire entrance myself and most of it is still all there,” Cooper said. “It’s an inconvenience to so many people. The other day my husband ran over a nail caused by a pile-up of debris and had to buy a new tire,” Cooper said.

Debris collection update across SWFL

Whitehead said that Lee County has no set date for the end of debris collections. “It continues. Many areas will have multiple passes,” said Whitehead.

Chloe Littler lives with her family in Cape Coral and said her neighbors still have trash remaining in their front yards. She feels that while the pace of debris pickup has taken a long time, it is understandable.

“It wasn’t until mid-October that the clean-up crew even went down our street. Lee County is a very large area to cover, so the weeks it has taken to make rounds are logical. The cleanup has been frustrating for many, but people should be understanding of the overwhelmingly widespread damage,” Littler said.

Austin Workman, a North Fort Myers resident, said there are also piles of debris lined up along his street and backyard. Once that is removed, he needs to put more material outside.

“The hurricane completely destroyed our house and nearly every house on our street. Flooding destroyed everything in our home,” Workman said. “We had to throw everything away. We had to rip all the drywall out and throw it away - furniture, appliances, cabinets, doors. Just everything.”

He said that they immediately began moving it all to the side of the road, but it quickly became so full, there was no room left to add to the piles.

“All the way down our street, there was a wall over eight feet high,” Workman said.

Around four weeks later, grapple trucks started the removal process, but it only lasted so long. "That gave us more room to put more debris out that we couldn't fit before. Right now, we have a little bit more on the road and still have a bit to get out there,” Workman said.

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Lee County
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Special to WGCU
Debris collection truck along a Lee County roadway

Whitehead said they are letting residents know that they are working with contractors to expedite cleanup and continuously educating residents about how they can help haulers collect materials faster.

“We understand the devastation that our community suffered and survey it continuously to coordinate recovery efforts. The county will do everything within its power to help residents clean up and rebuild as fast as possible,” Whitehead said. “Whenever I see those piles, it is a constant reminder of what we went through and are still going through,” Workman said.

Jusolyn Flower is a communications student at FGCU in the News Reporting class.
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