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U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to make last pass in right-of-way debris cleanup

The United States Army Corp of Engineers begins their last pass of right-of-way tornado debris on Mar. 13 and their contract ends Mar. 31.
Lily Burris
The United States Army Corp of Engineers begins their last pass of right-of-way tornado debris on Mar. 13 and their contract ends Mar. 31.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will make their last pass of right-of-way debris in Graves County on Mar. 13.

The USACE has been clearing debris within 15 feet of each side of the road as a part of their mission assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Graves County after the December tornado outbreak. Since their arrival on December 23, the USACE has picked up about 80% of the debris.

George Minges, USACE Chief of Emergency Management, said they’ve picked up just over 300,000 cubic yards of debris, which is about 20 football fields 10 feet deep of debris, but are aiming for about 400,000 cubic yards.

“We're moving a little ahead of schedule and that's a good thing,” Minges said. “We’re picking up the debris as quickly and safely as we can.”

The USACE’s contract ends on Mar. 31, so they’re starting the last pass a couple of weeks before that to give themselves time to get to everything and give everyone else time to get debris to the right-of-way. They haven’t been tearing down buildings or going onto private or commercial property so far.

“We'd like them to push as much of this debris as they can to the right-of-way, the storm related debris that's on their lots,” Minges said.

After the official last pass, the trucks will run for about another week, Minges said. The trucks look like two large boxes with an excavator arm attached to grab the debris and store it.

For the debris, Minges said sorting was a “key factor” since there are different waste streams for different types of items. There’s vegetative debris (tree limbs), metal and construction debris (two-by-fours and roofing), electronic goods (TVs and computers), household hazardous goods, and white goods (refrigerators and air conditioners).

Minges said the majority of the debris has been split half and half between vegetative debris and construction material. Some of the debris that the USACE will leave behind will be things like tires and engines because they need to be disposed of in a specific way outside of their work.

During the last pass, some of the crews will come out and rake things up by hand to get the smaller pieces of debris on the side of the road.

“We say in our industry that if you've been on one disaster, you've been on one disaster,” Minges said. “Every one is unique. Every one has its own challenges.”

Minges has been a part of disaster missions after Hurricanes Sandy, Maria, and Irma, but Mayfield stands out.

“This disaster is unique from others that I've worked where it's just a lot of devastation centralized to a small geographic area,” Minges said. “For example, when we cleaned up the Virgin Islands, that was a total of 400,000 yards across three islands. To date, we've cleaned up close to that amount just in this small geographic area.”

Another example Minges gave for comparison was the tornado outbreak in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. He said the total debris removal for that was 1.4 million cubic yards and the estimate for just Graves County was over 2 million cubic yards of debris to be removed. There were 15 other counties in Kentucky alone impacted by the tornado outbreak with a storm path documented as stretching across around 250 miles.

One of the biggest challenges for the USACE during this cleanup has been the weather. In the roughly two and a half months they’ve been assigned to this mission, the region has seen a variety of ice, snow and rain. Minges said something else that hasn’t been a challenge – but has been different – is the volunteers.

“We've seen a lot of volunteer organizations out here, folks that want to help,” Minges said. “There's an entire lay down area that's been brought in full of equipment that people can rent, or volunteer groups can borrow and use to help push all this debris. That has been something that stood out to me in this mission, just that volunteer push, the county, the citizens of Mayfield cleaning up themselves. It's been a very robust and resilient community.”

At this point, Minges discourages people from looking through the debris for items and keepsakes beyond what was done in the immediate aftermath. The USACE does come across some interesting items from time to time during this process and try to get it back to the city or the homeowner.

“There was an older object, it was a paper driver's license — they don't make those anymore, obviously, but it was something we returned, hopefully to get it back to the homeowner, maybe that was a loved one or grandfather or parent,” Minges said. “There's other smaller items. We found a pocket knife that said firefighter on it and one of the areas and we returned it with the address that we found it in hopes that it can find its way back to the owner because it looked like a keepsake that would have been important to someone.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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