Saturday, February 03, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

That’s Five….Six…
Pick Up Sticks
Here’s a good bar bet you can win. How much debris from the big ice storm of 2007 is the City faced with hauling off? Give up?

The answer is 35,000 cubic yards.

Since it’s Super Bowl Weekend, I thought I would try to relate that number to something we could all visualize. First I needed accurate dimensions of a football field. So I turned to Here you can download the “official” dimensions and specifications for a regulation NFL football field. I never knew why I would need this information in the past, but it’s nice to know you can get plans to anything on line.

Now let’s see, that’s length 360 feet or 120 yards and width at 160 feet or 53 and 1/3rd yards. Now here’s the part where I have to sharpen my pencil. The surface area of a regulation NFL football field is 6,396 square yards. So you divide 35,000 cubic yards by the surface area of the field and you get 5.5 yards or 16 ½ feet.

So when you sit down Sunday and turn on the big game, take a second to imagine the entire field to the height of 16 ½ feet covered with logs and branches. If it helps, the goal posts are ten feet high…regulation of course.

So far, the Public Works Department says they have removed approximately 20,000 cubic yards. Depending on where you live in town, that rates them either an A or an F. Overall, I would have to say they have done a fairly good job given the size of the disaster.

They did miss their own self-imposed deadline of having all the debris picked up in two weeks. That allows people like me to say I told you so, but it’s more important to know what the City is doing to fix the problem. In this case, I have to applaud the decision of the Public Works Department which acted quickly to double the number of contracted debris removal crews. On Wednesday of this week they were up to eighteen trucks under contract and our own street crews began to pick up the debris from the alleys.

All of this material is getting hauled to land the city owns that was once the Princess Jodi trailer park off North 94. Here they are creating a wall of wood to rival the Great Wall of China. The two stories of material on each side of the road now dwarves the trucks bringing new material to the site.

We are also learning the hard way that FEMA regulations are helping do for us what they did to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Nineteen city employees, who otherwise could be out collecting debris themselves, are being required by FEMA to monitor and check every truck and crew of the private contractors. A city employee has to be present to make sure no debris is picked up from private property…only city right of way.

Now it is okay for you to haul the limbs off your private property for us to pick up off the public rights of way, but FEMA is so afraid of having to pay 75% of the cost of picking up a tree limb just inside your yard, that they are wasting the time of valuable city employees to over monitor what should be a relatively minor disaster to them.

If the hurricanes and ice storms don’t get you, the FEMA red tape will.

Knowing how picky FEMA is about not touching private property helps me understand why communities on the Gulf Coast are still devastated with mounds of debris. They have clean streets though…the better to drive through town and admire the mounds of garbage.

The distinction FEMA makes between public and private property is particularly bad for Seniors and those of limited means. Next Tuesday the Council will be discussing using city funds and resources to help these individuals on a case by case basis.

I don’t mind when mistakes are made, so long as we learn from those mistakes. FEMA doesn’t seem to learn. But I think the City of St. Charles has learned a lot just from the storm last summer. This time we hired private contractors to help right away. We didn’t try to haul chippers around in the field behind the trucks, but concentrated on hauling the debris to a centralized location where it can be ground down later.

We are also going to look at ways to make our community better prepared to deal with future disasters. We need fixed permanent generators at warming centers. We need generators on gasoline supplies, because when the electricity goes out you can’t pump gas to run other generators and emergency vehicles. We also need to keep getting the word out (as Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes reminds us) that residents need to have an emergency kit and to be prepared to live without outside help for at least three days in the event of a major disaster.

To be better prepared myself, I’m honing my skills with a chain saw. My wife observed that for a guy who won’t go near a circular or bench saw around the house, I seem to be having way too much fun with a chain saw. She can go into a rather funny skit of my waving a chain saw over my head while standing on a ladder in the dark if you ask her.

Confidentially, it’s a lot more fun than playing pick up sticks.