Water rushes into the Carey Tunnel (previously the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel), caused by Hurricane Sandy. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
, USA TODAY
Although she was smaller than both hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, Sandy still left tons of trash in her wake -- a mess that officials say is months and possibly years away from being cleaned up.
Officials estimate that Sandy created more than 10 million cubic yards of debris in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut -- enough to fill the old Giants Stadium more than four times.
For more than a month already, crews have been picking up piles of waterlogged possessions, damaged drywall and downed trees from curbsides along the shore in both states.
With much of the curbside trash gone in most places, officials say they are moving to a second phase of debris removal -- carting piles away from temporary holding sites, picking up parks and wetlands, and demolishing buildings severely damaged by the storm.
"We've learned over the years that one of the most significant things we can do to make people feel better and to accelerate recovery efforts is to take the trash away," said Mike Byrne, the coordinating officer for FEMA in New York.
In the five boroughs of New York, that's meant collecting nearly 1.45 million cubic yards (a cubic yard is about the size of a dishwasher) of debris in just over a month. In nearby Nassau County on Long Island, contractors and county workers have handled more than 800,000 cubic yards.
And in Toms River, NJ, officials said they have picked up roughly 80,000 cubic yards of household and construction debris -- some 40,000 tons of trash -- and another 189,200 cubic yards of downed trees and branches.
On Monday alone, Toms River administrator Paul Shives said, 504 truckloads carrying 17,000 cubic yards of debris were hauled out of the barrier island areas of his township.
"It's been a challenge unlike any other the town's ever had," he said of the cleanup effort, which he hopes will be mostly wrapped up by the end of January.
Sandy's projected debris amount pales in comparison to Hurricane Katrina, which left more than 100 million cubic yards of debris across three states, and Hurricane Andrew, which in 1992 created 43 million cubic yards of trash in Florida's Miami-Dade County alone. But officials say Sandy has created its own set of challenges, both in densely populated urban areas and along barrier islands where access is still an issue.
All the collected debris has to be sorted and sifted. New York City's sanitation department and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the cleanup, has offered up woodchips from some of the city's 15,000 downed trees to nearby municipalities and companies willing to haul them away for reuse.
And the Environmental Protection Agency has pulled 90,000 potentially hazardous items -- from freon-containing refrigerators to household cleaners to propane tanks -- out of the rubble in New York, a spokeswoman said.
Other municipalities have been scooping up sand the Oct. 29 storm pushed into houses and streets, in the hopes of returning it to local beaches.
At Jacob Riis Park in Queens, two industrial sifters have been shaking debris as small as a cigarette butt out of a pile of sand that is the equivalent of the size of a football field and nearly 20 feet high, said Brandon Beach of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The machines clean 3,000 cubic yards of sand a day, and at that rate will take more than a month to complete the job.
New York City will reuse the sand to replenish waterfront stretches at Coney Island and in other parts of the city.
The Corps of Engineers also has overseen the city's work hauling trash to landfills upstate and in Pennsylvania. Daily reports show in November hundreds of long-haul truckloads were delivered each day.
The Corps also took 35 barges of trash up the Hudson. Nassau County is just now barging the roughly 260,000 cubic yards of debris from one of its temporary holding sites at Nickerson Beach Park to a landfill upstate, spokesman Michael Martino said. The county estimates it will spend $70 million to remove everything damaged or dragged in by the storm, he added.
Byrne said FEMA would likely reimburse 90% of localities' costs of the disaster, which have gone well into the millions, even in the smallest cities. Toms River was spending $1.5 million a week in debris hauler and landfill fees before a county contractor stepped in, Shives said.
"That adds up pretty quickly," he said.
But he added his hard-hit city wouldn't be able to rebuild without it.
"People have their lives at the curb, and that's heartbreaking," he said. "But the sooner you can get that out of there, the better it is for everybody."