The day is rapidly approaching when Hamilton County will no longer pick up brush and debris still littering the East Hamilton area in the wake of the April 27 tornado.
"There is going to have to be a date given, I just don't know what that date is going to be," said Gary Bean, superintendent of the county's Highway Department. "I think people are getting to the point they know that what needed to be done has been done. Whatever is left now they pretty much know they have to burn it."
After the tornado, Bean's department was relegated to picking up brush along the 880 miles of roads in the county's unincorporated areas that it normally maintains in other ways. The county does not normally offer brush pickup.
Federal Emergency Management Agency will set the date when that ends - "a time that's reasonable to clean it up around those houses" that were affected. After that, "it's going to be on the county's dime."
Even during this allotted phase of work, Bean stressed that FEMA will only reimburse the county for expenses to haul off brush cleared within 100 feet of houses. Many people in the Apison area have entire acres of trees that came down in the storm.
"It's a problem," Bean said. "It's hard to go road by road and see whether it's from around the house or they've done clearing. Anybody who's got trees down on their property wants them cleaned up, and I understand that, but there is a point that we can't just continue to take stuff that's due to essentially what they deem as land clearing."
During this first phase of work, FEMA is covering 75 percent of related overtime and equipment expenses and the state and county are splitting the remaining 25 percent. After the first phase ends, likely by around the end of the month, FEMA will estimate costs for a second phase, but that will likely not include pickup.
"It turns into quite a bit of paperwork and guessing," Bean said of the time and cost estimations, monitoring and then reimbursement, which could have the county paying back FEMA for what are overages based on those estimations. "We're really trying to avoid doing that. Some things we won't be able to avoid, like disposing of all the chips. We can't get rid of all those in a week. It might take months to truck them off."
He estimates nearly 3,000 truckloads of debris have been picked up so far, amounting to approximately $500,000 in equipment costs. Although detracting from the employees' normal tasks, which range from mowing road right of ways, patching asphalt and various projects for other county agencies, he said it hasn't really added to the department's operating costs. Aside from the first couple of weeks after the storm, the work is being done during the normal 40-hour work week, according to Bean.
"People call in work orders daily, wanting their ditches cleaned or potholes fixed and all that; all that kind of stuff is backing up on us," he said.
The city of Chattanooga instead opted to pay an outside contractor up to $2.5 million to clear brush on its roads.
"The county's done a pretty good job trying to control the cost of this," Bean said. "In the past we've found out it's a lot easier to do it ourselves if we just get out there and get it done."
Based on the amount of brush now being piled along roads in the hardest hit areas of Apison and Montcrest Drive in the Highway 58 area, the county is almost done with the clearing work, Bean said.
"We've told people that if they had stuff [to pick up] they needed to call and place a work order, that way we could prioritize and group them together," he said. "We can't run from one end of the county to other just to try and pick up something from a yard. We have to try and group them."
Call the Highway Department at 855-6100 to schedule a pickup. To request a brush burning permit, which is necessary to burn anything at this time, even on private property, call the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau at 643-5970. County residents must also obtain a permit from the Division of Forestry. Those west of the river should call at 332-3228; those east of the river call 478-0337.
Burning without a permit could be a safety hazard due to the weather and incur fines of up to $25,000 per day. Area firefighters are alerted when a permit is granted.