About Caroline McDonald

Caroline McDonald is the senior editor of the Risk Management Monitor and Risk Management magazine.

Jones Act Waiver Granted for Puerto Rico

A request to temporarily waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico that was denied on Monday has been approved. President Donald Trump waived shipping restrictions on Thursday to help speed up fuel and supply deliveries to Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria, the White House said.
Maria wiped out power on the island and destroyed infrastructure and cell towers, leading to massive shortages. Even though a waiver had been granted to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Department of Homeland Security initially said there was no need to waive the restriction for Puerto Rico, as it would not address the issue of the island’s damaged ports.

The Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was initiated almost 100 years ago to keep foreign-flagged vessels from shipping fuel and goods between U.S. ports. The last previous waiver was in December 2012 to allow petroleum products to be delivered for relief assistance after Hurricane Sandy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disagreed with the initial decision to deny suspension of the act for Puerto Rico. He wrote to the Department of Homeland Security urging it to allow a waiver and ultimately “a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act.” Without the waiver, McCain said residents of Puerto Rico would end up paying at least twice as much for food, drinking water and other supplies.

Supporters of the Jones Act, including ship builders, have maintained that it supports American jobs, including jobs in Puerto Rico and keeps shipping routes reliable, according to Reuters. They also contend that the issue in Puerto Rico is distributing shipments across the island once they are delivered.

The temporary waiver was not a surprise, as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Wednesday that he expected the federal government to suspend the Jones Act. He said he had been speaking with members of Congress from both parties who supported an emergency waiver.

Hurricane Debris Removal Costs Climbing

It’s difficult to find a photo of Houston, Miami, or any city hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that doesn’t contain mountains of debris. As cleanup continues, more trash is piling up everywhere. Cities and towns are faced with a number of issues including costs, expediency, manpower and just what to do with all that trash.

Reuters reported that cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took about a year. Hugh Kaufman, a retired EPA solid waste and emergency response analyst said the overall bill for Katrina was $2 billion, the largest to date. That cleanup spanned several states and the demolition of the more than 23,000 homes in the New Orleans area alone. He believes the combined cleanup tab for Harvey and Irma will top Katrina‘s.

In Houston, city officials estimate that about 8 million cubic yards of debris will need to be hauled away, enough to fill up the Texans’ NRG Stadium twice. There are about 100,000 piles of trash in the city, with collection farther along in some neighborhoods than in others, according to the New York Times. Moving these mountains of garbage has been left to county and local officials, who hire debris removal companies to help. FEMA reimburses local governments for 90% of their cost. About $136 million in federal funds were released to pay for initial cleanup around Houston, Reuters said.

In Brevard County, Florida, it is estimated there will be 600,000 cubic yards of trash hauled away—compared to 800,000 cubic yards after Hurricane Matthew—which they anticipate will take about a month, Florida Today reported. Because there is no set schedule for pickup, a number of residents decided not to wait, instead hauling their debris to landfills, causing traffic tie-ups.

Where will all this trash go? In Texas, contracted waste haulers and municipal crews are moving trash to dozens of landfills.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency who dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy told the New York Times that figuring out what to do with debris is one of the most challenging aspects of any storm. Because decisions are generally made at the local level, she said, “every community has to kind of reinvent the wheel.”

Setting aside appliances like refrigerators for recycling, chipping downed trees for mulch instead of burning them, prevents pollution and extends the life of landfills, Enck said, adding that leaking landfills present a hazard that can pollute groundwater.

A number of municipalities are asking residents and businesses that put their trash out for pickup to separate trees and other plant material from debris such as shingles, fences and roofing materials.

Florida Today offered these guidelines for preparing storm debris for pickup:

  • Debris should be placed on the curbside, but not in the road or on a sidewalk.
  • Debris should be sorted into separate piles—such as piles for vegetation, for wooden construction debris and for metal construction debris—to help speed up the pickup process.
  • Vegetation and other debris should be cut into sections no longer than 4 feet.
  • Do not use bags for yard waste, as it makes it impossible to recycle or mulch.
  • Do not put yard waste on top of storm drains, as it could block receding waters from Hurricane Irma flooding.
  • Neatly stack construction and demolition debris (drywall, roof shingles, siding, carpet, fencing and docks).
  • Never place debris next to utility poles or transformers, under power lines, on top of water meters, by fire hydrants, near vehicles, next to mailboxes or fences.
  • Do not place debris on other people’s property.

Beware of Fire Ants During Hurricane Cleanup

While Texas, Florida and other states dry out from the trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricanes Harvey and Irene, there is much to be done and many hazards to watch out for when clearing trees and removing soggy remains from homes and offices.

While cleaning up outdoors, people should keep in mind that many animals are also displaced. These include 20 species of snakes (in Texas), alligators, deer and raccoons, according to the Washington Post.

What they may not be on the lookout for, however, are floating rafts of fire ants, which have a painful, itchy sting, Smithsonian reported. The ants, which send some 25,000 people to the hospital each year, can be found in a number of states, including Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and California. They have a way of coping with large amounts of water by clinging to each other and forming floating rafts that can contain 500,000 or more fire ants.
Photo: ScienceNews

These rafts are actually floating colonies protecting the queen, which is in the middle. They can survive for weeks until they find a dry surface—any dry surface.

According to Popular Science:

Normal ants bite and then spray acid on the new wound, but fire ants are much worse. They bite, hold on, and inject a venom containing 46 different proteins, including poisons that sometimes affect the nervous system. They also have a more brutal attack pattern than many social insects. If you knock over a beehive, not all the bees will come after you—most colonies have a few dedicated warriors to protect the clan. When fire ants are disturbed, however, they all attack. About one in every hundred people will have a full-body response to the stings, such as an allergic reaction or even hallucinations.

As Eric Chaney at the Weather Channel warns, the ants can remain a problem even after the floodwaters recede and it is easy to accidently happen upon them, hunkered down amidst debris piles. According to the Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, “Laundry piles are convenient places that present lots of tunnels for the ants. They may be attracted to moisture or food residue or oils on soiled clothing. Often, reports of ants in laundry occur following a flood.”

Those venturing into flood waters are advised to wear rubber boots, cuffed gloves and protective rain gear to keep ants off their skin. Popular Science recommends spraying ant rafts with their kryptonite—soapy water—which can cause them to sink.

Harvey Losses Could Reach $90 Billion

With weeks to go before floodwaters recede in some parts of Texas, Hurricane Harvey—which delivered more than three feet of rain in areas of Houston—has so far caused at least 38 deaths and numerous injuries. Harvey was downgraded to a storm Wednesday night, but tens of thousands of people are still in shelters, some of which are also flooded, fearful of what they will find when they return to their homes.

“Hurricane Harvey has already broken all U.S. records for tropical cyclone-driven extreme rainfall, with observed cumulative amounts of 51 inches,” Michael Young, RMS head of Americas climate risk modeling said in a statement.

Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather declared Hurricane Harvey to be, “The costliest and worst natural disaster in American history. AccuWeather has raised its estimate of the impact to the nation’s gross national product to $190 billion or a full one percent, which exceeds totals of economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined.”

Damage assessments are climbing, with modeling and analytics firm RMS now estimating that losses incurred by wind, storm surge and inland flooding could be as high as $70 billion-$90 billion. The majority of losses are coming from inland flooding in the Houston metropolitan area, where more than seven million properties top $1.5 trillion in value. RMS said the estimate includes damage to all residential, commercial, industrial and automotive risks in the area, as well as possible inflation from an area-wide demand surge.

According to RMS:

Most losses will be uninsured, given that private flood insurance is limited. However, although the insured losses will remain uncertain for some time they will be significant, as private coverage is not consistent: there are significant variations in how coverage is provided by individual insurers.

Coverage for some of the residential losses has been provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). There are approximately 500,000 NFIP policies that will be affected by Harvey, and the losses to the program will be very significant – potentially the largest event to date. However, NFIP penetration rates are as low as 20% in the Houston area, and thus most of the losses will be uninsured. This will rekindle the public policy debate around this issue.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated that more than $125 billion in federal funding will be required to help the state recover from Hurricane Harvey, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Adding to the area’s woes were two explosions at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 20 miles northeast of Houston early on Thursday.

The plant, which produces organic peroxides used in products like kitchen counter tops, polystyrene cups and plates, industrial paints and PVC pipes., was without electric service since Sunday and lost refrigeration when backup generators were flooded. Because the products need to be kept cold to prevent a chemical reaction, workers had moved them from warehouses into diesel-powered refrigerated containers, but those were also flooded.

A sheriff’s deputy was taken to a hospital after inhaling fumes, according to Reuters.

Residents in a 1.5-mile radius of the Arkema plant were evacuated on Tuesday, and water levels there make it too dangerous for workers to assess the situation from the ground, officials added.

Arkema urged people to stay away as the fire burns out. Black smoke was billowing from the site, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a televised news briefing.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it had temporarily barred flights from the area because of the risk of fire or explosion.