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Fort Buchanan and Hurricane Maria: A Look Back at Lessons Learned

By Robin Sullivan, Army Reserve Solid Waste Program, and Osvaldo Fantauzzi, Pollution Prevention Program Manager, Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico | Nov. 14, 2019

FORT BUCHANAN, Puerto Rico —

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, lost a basic service - refuse collection. But, with the post's proactive solid waste management, recovery was within reach. 

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 – just two weeks after Hurricane Irma carved her own path of destruction in the Caribbean. As communities struggled to recuperate after Hurricane Irma, the Category 4 Hurricane Maria unleashed devastation on the island and scattered tons of debris in her wake. Fort Buchanan, a United States Army Reserve-funded Installation in San Juan, was in the midst of recovery from Hurricane Irma when Hurricane Maria arrived.

Fort Buchanan cleared the debris from access ways soon after Maria subsided, first from its mission critical facilities and then from its main road to restore important services. However, the Post could not control the restoration of one important service: refuse removal. The Installation received no municipal solid waste or recycling removal service for two weeks after the hurricane.

In an unusual turn of events, Hurricane Irma actually prepared the Installation for the aftermath of its successor, Maria. After Hurricane Irma, Fort Buchanan placed additional waste containers and designated additional material storage areas to manage cleanup. These containers and storage areas were available to the Post the two weeks following Hurricane Maria to assist in the collection of municipal solid waste and recycling. There was limited access to their regular containers and these were already located away from occupied buildings and being monitored by Medical, pest control and cleaning services. However, their success in managing the storm conditions is not credited to the extra storage available, but rather, due to their thorough emergency planning.

Fort Buchanan is not new to hurricane conditions and made preparations for such an event in their emergency planning. A specific clause in the contracts with the Installation’s waste haulers included emergency event services, allowing Fort Buchanan to request the expedited collection of all solid waste and recycling containers one day prior to the storm’s arrival as part of its Tropical Storm Readiness Plan. The precaution prevented the potential dispersal of wastes due to wind and provided full collection capacity after the storm. The contract clause then ensured that the hauler restored collection and removal services as soon as the roads were cleared, and the contractors returned to work. Fort Buchanan was one of the first sites on the island to receive service.

As the storm response continued, the population of Fort Buchanan temporarily increased, and so did the post’s solid waste. Only mission essential Garrison personnel reported to work at the time, but other groups – such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Puerto Rico National Guard and first responders – used the installation’s operational facilities. When its hauler restored refuse collection and removal services, Fort Buchanan had to account for removal of the increased amount of waste. Fort Buchanan added more dumpsters for both municipal solid waste and recycling to support the task.

The waste associated with the storm destruction (storm debris) was collected separately from the municipal solid waste and recycling materials. The post collected storm debris at a community staging area as part of FEMA-directed recovery efforts on the island. This material included vegetation and larger materials that cannot be contained in a dumpster such as concrete/wood. The FEMA-managed storm debris was not tracked as part of the installation’s solid waste reporting and was not handled through their contract with the waste hauler.

To demonstrate the increase in municipal solid waste immediately following Hurricane Maria, a comparison was done to the previous year’s Solid Waste Annual Reporting (SWAR). Looking at the same period of the fiscal year in FY17 to compare to the effects of the waste generation immediately following the storm in FY18, the Q1/Q2 reporting was compared. Fort Buchanan’s FY17 data showed total waste generated (not including construction and demolition (C&D) waste) at 2,051 tons, of which 1,371 tons were diverted and 680 tons were disposed. These amounts are a good representation of non-emergency conditions at Fort Buchanan. The SWAR data for the same quarters (Q1/Q2) immediately after the hurricane in FY18 showed total waste generated (not including C&D) at 2,427 tons, of which 1,339 tons were diverted and 1,088 tons were disposed. As noted above, these amounts do not include the FEMA-managed storm debris. The increase in waste generation in Q1 and Q2 of FY18 is attributed to the change in operations during and immediately after the storm.

As the year continued, the waste generated continued to increase. For Q3 and Q4 of FY18, SWAR data for total waste (not including C&D waste) generated was reported at 2,862 tons, of which 1,184 tons were diverted and 1,678 tons were disposed. Although most of the operations on the post have returned to normal, the increase in waste generation through Q3 and Q4 can be attributed to the required facility repairs due to storm damage that continue to be addressed.

Fort Buchanan noticed an increase not only in the overall municipal solid waste and recycling, but also in specific storm-related streams such as excess alkaline batteries. The Post reached out to their Soldier community for ideas and assistance in diverting these wastes. The Installation’s school system participated in a six-month United States Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored initiative to collect and dispose of 450 pounds of spent alkaline batteries used in the aftermath of the storms, before electrical power was restored. Antilles Middle School collected the most batteries and received an award for their recycling campaign and efforts.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Include emergency event clauses in service contracts. Such a clause enabled Fort Buchanan to maximize its waste collection capacity ahead of the storm and ensure priority service restoration after the storm. A lapse in waste services will not cause problems immediately after an incident, but over time, it could impact operations and the health of staff and Soldiers. Planning ahead will help alleviate the impact.
  • Involve the installation population in recovery solutions. Residents and community agencies are viable sources of assistance.
  • Design structures and facilities with higher wind tolerances on installations located in areas prone to high winds. Wind-tolerant designs will sustain less damage in a storm, which will decrease solid waste generation and lessen the expense of repairs-driven solid waste disposal. Additionally, robust facilities can continue to operate during and after an emergency event.