City residents hoping to benefit from a short-term federal program designed to clear tornado debris from private property could be out of luck.
Operation Clean Sweep, pitched by state and federal officials as an effort to clear downed trees and debris from private property at no cost to the landowner, may not get started in time to clear many lots before it expires.
Despite the fact that city officials signed on in late May, no work has been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or the US Army Corps of Engineers. More than 100 city residents have signed on for the program, which the city council has now extended to July 12. The operation was originally set to expire today (Sunday).
“At this point, no property owners have received a benefit,” city attorney Roy Williams said. “They have not approved any property owners at this point.”
With the program now under an extension, city government will have to pick up the tab for 5 percent of the cost of clean-up. Before today, the program would have been funded 100 percent by the federal government.
As more information about the operation has come to light, city spokesperson Jerry Freeman said it will likely not cover as much private property clean-up as was originally proposed.
“Originally they said they would come in and clean-up the driveway and around the house,” he said. “But now, they’re just saying they’ll come in and clear enough for contractors to get in. If you don’t have any structure damage, it doesn’t look like you’ll even be covered at all.”
The private property cleanup is also only covered in FEMA approved zones, which include much of downtown, portions of the Larkwood community, and some of U.S. Hwy. 278 East. Damaged sections of the city not yet covered include west of Main Avenue, around Snyder Road, and other areas.
Williams said the additional damaged areas have been turned in to FEMA, but have yet to be approved.
“We’ve asked to have these added to the map, but up to this point they have not,” he said. “They won’t make a final decision on the zones until June 17, which means for people not on the grid, that could be the earliest they could be approved.”
Clean Sweep will also include curb side pick-up for debris in the approved zones, but the contract covering citywide debris pick-up expires today (Sunday). With the initial 100 percent grace period over, it would cost the city at least 12.5 percent to have Clean Sweep work areas not in the approved zones — a move city officials say they can’t in good conscious do. Instead, the city’s own departments will take over clean-up in the outer zones, a move Mayor Max Townson said should be much more cost efficient.
“Our city departments did such a great job for those first 15 days, we plan on mobilizing them, because we think they can do it for a much lower cost,” he said. “We’re going to take from every department and work during the regular work day, so it won’t cost any overtime to do this.”
The city encourages all residents to continue pushing storm debris to city curbs, and officials do not expect any significant drop off in response or service times.
“We estimate there are about 250-300 large stumps left, and we think we can do those in about two weeks or so,” city street department supervisor Rick Henry said. “We could do that in our regular eight-hour day, and just do it on top of our regular work load.”
Bureaucratic delays in Alabama communities affected by the April 27 storms have taken a toll on the speed with which Operation Clean Sweep has been implemented in rural Cullman County, but officials said the program has at least seen some work done during its fully-funded period, which ends at midnight tonight (Sunday).
Until that time, work done on eligible private property for storm debris cleanup will be fully funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the State of Alabama. After tonight’s deadline, Cullman County must begin picking up five percent of the tab. After 30 additional days have passed, the county’s contribution will increase to 12.5 percent.
County commission chairman James Graves said Saturday implementing Operation Clean Sweep had been a cumbersome process, but that the county was able to get a significant amount of debris removal work done during the full-funding period.
Still, he added, there’s a long way to go.
“All I can say is they've been working as hard as they could with them big old double trailer trucks,” said Graves. “But in some areas of the county, they have yet to even go down some of the roads — there is that much debris in Cullman County. I think that even FEMA understands that Cullman County had the most hits, throughout that day [April 27], of anybody in Alabama. Considering that, we’re very satisfied with what they’ve done thus far.”
At this week’s regular meeting, the county commission will consider setting a near-term deadline for property owners to apply for participation in the program — primarily, said Graves, to avoid starting a slow-moving paper trail too late into the cleanup period to be of any use to hopeful applicants.
“We’re going to stop taking applications from property owners this coming Wednesday for people asking for contractors to go on their private property,” said Graves, “because it's taking so long after you fill out the paperwork to get started — the paperwork is like a sloth moving slowly through the trees. If we don't establish a cutoff, we’ll be taking applications up until right near the end, and there won't be time for the paperwork to go through for those folks. And they wouldn’t be very happy about that.”
Clean Sweep applications for county residents will be accepted Monday through Wednesday from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the old county water department offices on U.S. Highway 31 South in Cullman. Wednesday is the final day for applicants to request that their land be cleared as part of the Operation Clean Sweep program. Officials expect a late surge of applications could put the final tally of county Clean Sweep applicants near 300.
The county, which is hoping to avoid going into debt to pay for its portion of the coming phase of debris removal, may opt out of Operation Clean Sweep at the end of the 30-day period that begins Monday. Graves anticipates targeting the most costly areas as quickly as possible during the next month, and then opting out of the program before the county begins having to pay at the higher 12.5 percent rate.
After that time, county road crews will likely be deployed to collect roadside debris on an ongoing basis as landowners continue to set it out for pickup.
“The rough estimate we’ve come up with so far is that, at the five percent rate, it’s gonna cost us about $250,000,” Graves said. “So more than likely, by the end of this 30 days, if it's not done, we’ll just terminate it and just do the rest ourselves. We're going to give priority to going on private property and getting the big stumps and trees off people’s property while we’re under this next 30-day period, and it won't hurt the smaller stuff to lie on the rights of way for a while longer, because, if necessary, we can always go back ourselves and pick that up further down the road.”
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