Porcelain bathroom sinks. Yellow fibreglass insulation.
Four months after Hurricane Irma, the debris from the storm is still piled up beside US 1, the highway running the length of the Florida Keys. All the stuff is twisted, torn, bent, cracked, crushed, sodden, mangled, gutted, or generally busted.
Nylon rope. Life jackets.
I don’t suppose I’m seeing all the debris from Irma. As we drive by, front-end loaders drop buckets-full of the stuff into dump trucks, so I figure some has already been carted off for disposal.
Sheet metal. White plastic pails.
Some stuff is still scattered through the bushy swamps adjacent to the highway. State workers laboriously drag it out to the roadside piles.
Tangled tree branches. Sawn tree trunks.
Given the extent of the damage that was reported, I’m also guessing that some stuff still sits on properties damaged by the storm but not visible from the highway.
Cardboard boxes. PVC pipe.
I’ve never been in a hurricane zone before, and the amount and diversity of debris is breathtaking, overwhelming, and awesome — all in the worst way.
Kitchen cupboards. Sofas.
These days, recycling is practically a sacred duty, and careful sorting is essential to that effort. If anything speaks to the difficulty of such a clean-up it is this: The piles of debris I’m seeing are hopelessly jumbled. And I can’t imagine that anyone cares.
Black garbage bags, full. White plastic sheeting.
Nothing in my life has led me to disaster zones, and the scale of the debris that I can see is hard for me to take in, never mind the damage that I can’t see from the highway. The money, logistics, persistence, and backbreaking effort required to dig out is almost unimaginable. Not to mention the time. I mean, it’s been four months and they’re still at it. Incredible.
Mattresses. Mobile homes.
Incredible as it seems, though, my small glimpse into the recovery work from Hurricane Irma is consistent with two other data points.
Orange traffic cones. Tires.
In 2014, we visited New Zealand. Christchurch had been a fixture on the standard tour, but not since the 2011 quake. Our tour guide had gone to school there, and told of going back and not even recognizing the street where she’d lived. Even after three years, there were still parts of the city where municipal sewers had not been fully restored.
Chunks of styrofoam. Chunks of drywall.
In 2007, a friend visited Assisi. Ten years after their major earthquake, she saw a new path beaten down over broken steps that had never been repaired, and debris on the narrower side streets and paths that had never been fully cleaned up.
White plastic lawn chairs. Sidewalk blocks.
How long does it take to recover from a disaster? Four months? Three years? Ten years? It’s an impossible question: Disasters vary greatly by type, scale, and scope; countries and local communities vary greatly in their resources and resilience.
Fibreglass roofing sheets. Lumber.
But however long it takes for an easily accessible community in a rich, developed country, how much longer must it take for a remote community in a poor, undeveloped country? How much longer in the face of ongoing disasters: earthquakes or hurricanes that hit every few years? And how much longer when the damage is inflicted not by nature but by a civil war that also trashes the civil institutions responsible for recovery?
Paper cement bags. Wooden pallets.
Four months after Hurricane Irma, the debris from the storm is still piled up beside US 1.