PENDER COUNTY — Rising plumes of smoke could be seen throughout the Belvedere Plantation neighborhood in Hampstead on Wednesday as residents there burned fallen limbs and other vegetative debris left over from Hurricane Isaias.
On Thursday afternoon, Pender County announced it was sticking by an earlier decision to not offer free vegetative debris removal services for county residents, citing the lack of any substantial countywide damage and the high costs associated with debris pickup operations.
According to a press release, Pender County Chairman George Brown said the county’s decision to not collect curbside debris was similar to decisions by most other counties in the southeastern North Carolina region. But out of three coastal counties neighboring Pender, one is planning to offer debris removal services, one is undecided, and one is not.
New Hanover County has announced that, following an assessment of countywide damages, it planned to collect vegetative debris from residents in unincorporated areas at no cost beginning Monday, August 10. As of late Thursday afternoon, neighboring Brunswick County has not yet decided whether it will be collecting residents’ debris (although it has announced a ‘Free Clean Up Week’ at the county landfill from August 17-22 for yard waste and construction debris).
North of Pender, Onslow County announced that it had “not met the threshold to activate the FEMA contract for debris pick-up in the unincorporated areas of the county.”
Pender officials are encouraging residents to take their debris to the sole company in the county permitted to receive it — Branch and Brush Debris Depot, located on the west side of Highway 17, about two miles south of the N.C. 210 turnoff to Surf City, between the highway and a small cluster of homes on Oak Grove Drive.
The county is also encouraging residents to burn their brush piles (the county does not ban debris burning) and noted the North Carolina Forestry Service has posted information on guidelines and permits here.
“Property owners are encouraged to check with their homeowners and property associations for restrictions of burning debris,” according to the release.
“We urge residents to dispose of leaves, branches, pine straw responsibly,” Brown said.
When asked whether the impacts from Isaias were limited as expected and to expand on the county’s decision earlier this week — especially given that there is only one permitted vegetative debris company operating in the county — county spokesperson Tammy Proctor said, “Yes, impacts were limited as anticipated.”
Thursday’s press release further explained the county’s reasons.
“Due to the limited geographic impacts from Hurricane Isaias, Pender County is not conducting curbside collection of storm-related debris,” according to the release. “Damage assessment has been completed and determined that areas of eastern Pender County sustained the most concentrated damage related to vegetative debris. Despite this damage, the decision to incur the cost related to conducting a countywide debris collection must be based on impact experienced throughout the 900 square miles that exists in Pender County.”
Two residents living in western Pender County near Burgaw, Jen Witkowski and Bill O’Brien, said there was little observed debris in their surrounding areas following the storm.
According to the release, the decision to pick up debris countywide “must be evaluated from a financial capacity standpoint.”
“The debris operation conducted by Pender County following Hurricane Florence cost $16,674,666. The majority of this expense has not been reimbursed by FEMA nearly two years after the storm. Put in simplistic terms, the unbudgeted expenses incurred related to debris collection following Florence was roughly equivalent to 25 percent of the total general fund budget for fiscal year 2020 and more than the entire Public Safety and Department of Social Services budget combined,” according to the release.
The county did not explain why it would be unattainable to focus its debris pickup services only in the populated Highway 17 corridor along the coast in the Hampstead area, where most of the storm’s debris had piled up, as opposed to conducting a countywide operation. Instead, Brown explained how the county picked up debris following more impactful storms in recent years.
“Generally, in the past, this has been a North Carolina Department of Transportation function,” Brown explained. “Pender County has, in the past, participated in county-wide debris collection programs with NCDOT after significant storms such as Hurricane Mathew or Florence which caused devastation throughout the county.”
Meanwhile, two coastal towns in the county, Surf City and Topsail Beach, will each pick up vegetative debris placed in the right of way over the next two weeks.
More than 10 months after Hurricane Florence brought extensive flooding and debris damage to Pender County in the fall of 2018, officials released a ‘After Action Report’ that said “debris pickup was extremely challenging and illegal dumping was prevalent” after the hurricane.
The report outlined six areas of improvement, including debris management.
Port City Daily covered the issue extensively in the months after the hurricane, including the county’s agreement to spend $600,000 to remove hurricane debris along private, unpaved roads after months of public pressure. A photo collection published in late October showed extensive debris piles along U.S. 53 just northeast of Burgaw, nearly six weeks after the storm.
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