Nearly half a million cubic yards of flood debris have been picked up in East Baton Rouge, but some city-parish leaders are frustrated with the pace and one said he is missing Mayor-President Kip Holden's leadership amid the cleanup.
At a special meeting Wednesday night, Metro Council members aired grievances about the way contractors are picking up debris, questioning why some neighborhoods have been cleared while others are still overloaded with dry wall and remnants of their constituents' lives before August floods entered an estimated 55,000 homes in the parish.
The city-parish reported that debris removal has been more productive since opening a temporary staging site on North Sherwood Forest and the trucks are averaging pickups of 35,000 to 45,000 cubic yards a day. Debris removal contractor DRC Emergency Services said they expect removal could take 50 more days and they have quadrupled their estimate of how much debris the floods left to 1.3 million cubic yards.
Contractors have 134 debris removal trucks circling the roads in Baton Rouge and expect to add 30 more trucks by this weekend.
But council members said they are tired of driving past piles from gutted homes and they are worried how long debris removal might take and how much is left.
"What I'm hearing tonight is we've picked up half a million cubic yards of debris and we don't even know how much is left," said Councilman Trae Welch. "We're not even close to getting this thing done."
Residents have not received proper communication about when to expect their debris will be removed and they do not know where to turn with their questions, council members said. DRC recommended residents call 888-721-4372 to inform the contractors of where debris is still located if they are worried their pocket of the parish has been passed over.
While Welch and Erika Green complained about the lack of communication on debris pickup, Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso called out Mayor-President Kip Holden himself. Holden was not at the meeting Wednesday, nor was he at the Metro Council's first post-storm briefing on Aug. 22.
"I have one question: Where's Kip? Where's the mayor-president?" Amoroso asked Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel, saying people need the presence and reassurance of the mayor.
Daniel defended Holden, saying he was "on a business trip" and that Holden has been "active and engaged" since the flooding began. Daniel said Holden's absence at the meeting is not a reflection on his leadership during the flood and the cleanup.
Holden did not answer calls or return a message on Wednesday evening.
But Amoroso complimented Daniel's leadership and continued to question Holden's lack of visibility and communication.
"William, I see you, I see your face. But the mayor has not called me…," Amoroso said before Metro Councilman John Delgado cut him off for speaking out of order.
Tempers flared multiple times during the discussion, with council members complaining about staging sites, traffic and environmental quality.
The city-parish announced Aug. 30 they would use a lot at 2876 N. Sherwood Forest Drive near South Choctaw Drive as a temporary staging site. Trucks deliver debris there and it is compacted and then driven overnight to the permanent site for flood debris at Ronaldson Field.
Residents near both sites have been upset about the daily loads of debris they say have worsened traffic and caused environmental concerns. DRC said the temporary site at North Sherwood Forest should be open for 90 days, and discouraged people from calling it a "landfill" because debris that goes there will eventually be transferred to Ronaldson Field.
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said the council members need to put aside arguments about where the debris is going and focus instead on clearing from peoples' yards the daily reminders of what was lost.
"If not, it's going to be Christmas and Thanksgiving with trash in front of peoples' houses and that's not right."
Metro Councilman Scott Wilson's council district was hit the hardest, with 15,430 structures estimated to have been affected. Baton Rouge contractors have picked up 61,690 cubic yards of debris in his district, while other contractors for the city of Central are also picking up debris there.
Wilson pointed to a number of roads in his district where the piles of debris are still massive, saying the pickup had not been good enough so far. DRC Vice President Mark Stafford offered to ride along with Wilson through his district to see how resources need to be deployed differently.
Green said she has seen multiple debris trucks pick up from a few houses on a street and then move onto another street before clearing the one where they started. DRC has picked up by far the most debris in Green's district, with 146,809 cubic yards collected there.
"We call that cherry-picking in the industry and it's something we discourage," Stafford said, vowing to more closely monitor the way debris is collected.
Karen Khonsari, the city-parish's director of environmental services, said the contractors have received approval from FEMA to go 30 yards onto private property to pick up debris that does not fit onto a right-of-way or sidewalk. But contractors have not begun doing so, and trucks that go onto private property will need a right-of-entry agreement from homeowners.
Khonsari also applauded the number of local people and workers involved in the debris pickup process. Debris trucks have field monitors who help ensure the pickup meets Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.
The city-parish reported that 122 debris field monitors have been hired, 89 of whom are Baton Rouge-area residents and 17 of whom were displaced from their homes because of floods. DRC's largest subcontractor is the local Louisiana Waste System, which oversees more than half of the debris removal trucks.
The city-parish's contract with DRC says they will pay the contractor $13.98 per cubic yard to pick up, process and dispose of flood debris. DRC is paying their subcontractors $5 per cubic yard.
Khonsari continued to ask for patience.
"I wish I had another word for this other than debris," she said. "Debris has an inclination that it's trash and as I've walked through the neighborhoods that's not what I've seen. I've seen people's lives on the curb."