ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's more than two months since Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, and there are places where there's still debris on the sidewalks, places like Groves, Texas, a city of about 17,000 next to Port Arthur.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARBAGE TRUCK COMPACTOR)
SIEGEL: A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the problem in Groves.
JOHN SPIKES: It just started raining, and it kept raining. And then it kept raining, and then it rained some more.
SIEGEL: That's John Spikes, Groves' solid waste manager. That rain and the flooding pounded many towns and cities, and in many places, the sidewalks filled with debris, as they did in Groves.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARBAGE TRUCK COMPACTOR)
SPIKES: All the furniture, the clothes, photo albums, high school graduation gowns, everything out to the road.
SIEGEL: Groves, Texas, had prepared for this. They'd contracted with a debris removal company to clean up after a disaster. After Harvey, that company sent some huge trucks down to the city. The trucks started the job, but...
SPIKES: The trucks took off, so then we're left with all the debris on the side of the road.
SIEGEL: The trucks had been provided by a company called DRC Emergency Services under a contract that was part of the city's emergency plan. DRC left smaller trucks behind, and Groves deployed its own garbage trucks. But where did those big trucks go?
DEE SOSA: After a week, maybe 10 days, these trucks were moving on to Florida where they could make more money.
SIEGEL: After Hurricane Irma. That is Dee Sosa. He's the city manager of Groves. And here's what he told me. He says his city contracted with the DRC and agreed to pay a little under $10 per cubic yard of debris. DRC agreed to send an array of equipment. And in fact, the company sent some 10 or more of those big trucks.
SOSA: They're double trucks with a grapple in the middle. And there's about 300 of them in existence.
SIEGEL: Presumably enough to respond to one big hurricane. But now there were two big hurricanes. The debris in Groves reflected flood damage - lots of Sheetrock, furniture and household appliances. When Irma struck in Florida, more of the debris there was wind damage - tree limbs, if not entire trees. Sosa says that's easier to haul away.
Also, Florida's cities were paying more, and a bidding war ensued. Pompano Beach, for example, was a winner. That city paid another debris removal company $14.50 per cubic yard of debris. That's almost half, again, as much as Groves, Texas, was paying. Prices in Florida ran so high in fact that that state's attorney general has opened an investigation into price gouging there. The truckers who took off in search of those higher prices were not permanent DRC employees. They were subcontractors. City Manager Dee Sosa and Groves, Texas, faced a choice.
SOSA: The best analogy I can make is like this. Let's say that you want me to Sheetrock your house, and I am the general contractor. And I hire the Sheetrock people, and I have them working for me all the time. But it's an arrangement whereby, hey, I find you work; you come in and work. I get a cut, and you get a cut.
All of a sudden, they have way more jobs available than there are Sheetrock people, and these guys can make more money someplace else. Well, I go back to you and say, hey, do you want to raise your price and try to match this so we can keep these guys here? Well...
SIEGEL: And I say, wait a minute; my house isn't done yet.
SOSA: I understand.
SIEGEL: I've contracted with you to put Sheetrock on my house, is what I say to you.
SOSA: Right, right, right.
SIEGEL: What are you talking about, is what I say to you.
SOSA: I totally understand, but I'm providing you the - what's ever available, OK? And once again, I'm giving you the opportunity to keep them here if you want to go up on your price.
SIEGEL: Sosa wasn't willing, so the big trucks left, and Groves' cleanup effort continued but with smaller trucks. It went slower. I asked Dr. Karl Kim about this. He's executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center. The center trains localities in setting up their emergency plans. He was not familiar with the Groves, Texas, story, but he says this hurricane season was unique.
We expect disasters to overwhelm local capacity. My question is, did this season of disasters overwhelm national capacity?
KARL KIM: Yes. It's clear that it's overwhelmed. I mean, we're looking at something that is really rather unprecedented. We're looking at something that is as large as Katrina, as large as Sandy and as large as Sandy and Katrina combined.
SIEGEL: But when that happens, when the demand for such service exceeds the national capacity, should there at that moment be any bargaining over the rate at which we'll compensate the contractor for collecting a cubic yard of debris. Or shouldn't that have been settled earlier?
KIM: Yes. And I think that that's one of the lessons that's coming out of this - that we do need to invest more time in thinking about these really large large-scale disasters.
SIEGEL: We checked in with Grove City Manager Dee Sosa today, and he told us it'll be Thanksgiving before the sidewalks in Groves are clear. As for DRC Emergency Services, a spokesman told us by email that DRC is currently working with 11 municipalities affected by Hurricane Harvey and 25 municipalities affected by Hurricane Irma and that despite what we heard, rates for debris removal that DRC negotiates with municipalities are guaranteed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.