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As Pinellas Wraps Up Irma Debris Destruction, Polk Sets Collection End Date

It's been three months since Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and some counties are still cleaning up.

While Pinellas County is getting closer to getting all of the debris out of their area, harder-hit Polk County is setting final collection dates.

More than 400,000 cubic yards of debris was collected from around unincorporated areas of Pinellas County.

Workers have been compacting that material at four sites around the county over the last month or so, and are expected to finish up before the New Year.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
At their peak, stacks of debris at the Pinellas County site grew as tall as 50 feet high...

One site was set up in a normally empty field abutting wetlands at the corner of East Lake Road and Keystone Road in Palm Harbor.

Pinellas County crews and contractors approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) brought 110,000 cubic yards of vegetation there.

While fences and roof debris went to other sites to be compacted, all that came to the Palm Harbor site was downed trees, palm fronds and brush.

At its peak, as many as 150 trucks were bringing in vegetation, creating piles that rose almost 50 feet high. 

Now, thanks to employees running two grinders at least eight to twelve hours a day, those stacks are quickly shrinking.

"They grind it, they make it into mulch, and then they can repurpose it somehow," said Sean Hannigan, Emergency Preparedness coordinator for Pinellas County Public Works. "If somebody wants to use it for pulp, that's completely up to the place where we drop it for final disposal, or they can also use it just as mulch for landscaping."

That mulch is piled up at the site before being transferred out, making it one of the nicer smelling "dumps" in the area.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
...but eight to twelve hour workdays are quickly shrinking the amount of debris.

Hannigan said compaction of debris at the other three sites is about complete. The end-products from all four locations are being taken to final disposal sites around Florida.

Once all the debris is gone, Hannigan said crews will restore the sites to their previous state so the county can get paid by the federal government.

"You do have a certain timeline that you have to be eligible for FEMA reimbursement, so we're still well within that window," he said. "After everything's hauled away, we have to do a complete restoration of the sites to put them back as they were prior to the storm."

And while the mulch being created from the Irma debris might not be available to the public, Hannigan reminds people that his department has sites around Pinellas County where people can pick up free recycled mulch year-round.

Meanwhile, in Polk County, contracted haulers will begin their final collection pass through the county starting next month, so residents must have their debris set for pickup by Jan. 2.

According to a post on the county's Facebook page, the final day for Hurricane Irma debris collection is Jan. 31. The two remaining resident drop-off sites for vegetative debris will close permanently Dec. 31.

For information regarding pickup, or to identify missed debris collection, Polk County residents should call the debris hotline at 863-451-3357.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
The mulched debris is being held at the site temporarily before being trucked to another dump, most likely out of the county.

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