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Cleanup to cost millions

The storm is gone, but not the tons of downed trees or the twisted shards of mobile homes littering front yards.

Published October 28, 2005

PLANTATION - The evidence of Hurricane Wilma's power still clutters verdant communities all over South Florida: thousands of tons of broken walls, shingles, uprooted trees and rotting food.

It will take hundreds of millions of dollars and months of work to clear the monstrous piles. In Broward County alone, officials are just beginning to pick up 6-million cubic yards of hurricane debris. The estimated cost: $180-million.

For many residents, that means weeks of living with depressing reminders of Wilma on their front lawns.

In Plantation, a Broward County community filled with gardening enthusiasts, the wait has been especially trying.

"I wish I could take a wand like Tinkerbell and zap it and just make it go away," said Ritch Christopher, 64, as he gazed at the torn tree limbs and pieces of a wrecked shed stacked on his front lawn.

Palm Beach County expects its cleanup to cost about $100-million, as much as Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne combined last year. Miami-Dade estimates it will spend $200-million to remove its 6-million tons of debris.

Collier County, where Hurricane Wilma made landfall, is still trying to gauge how much debris it will have to collect. Officials there know it will be many times more costly than clearing up the 6,000 tons of debris left behind by Hurricane Charley, which just brushed by Collier last year.

"This is unprecedented. We've never seen anything like it," said Margie Hatke, a spokeswoman for Collier County public utilities.

Many counties are still clearing important roadways, and don't expect to start collecting debris until today or Monday. Vonetta Rachels, a special projects manager with Broward County Waste and Recycling Services, said officials haven't yet determined where they will dump all the trash from the hurricane. Like other counties, they hope the federal government covers most of the tab.

For now, the mounds keep growing.

In Plantation, huge stacks of wrecked trees and downed limbs make many sidewalks impassable. When they're not standing in line for gasoline, many people wield chain saws on fallen trees they had lived with for years.

"It's changed everything," said Karen Kirwan, 42, before slicing into a downed sea grape tree on her front lawn.

Kirwan used to live under a lush canopy. Now the trees are almost all gone, and she expects it will cost her at least $10,000 to remove the uprooted ficus tree sprawled across her back yard.

Most counties plan to use the foliage they gather as mulch and deposit other debris in landfills. But Collier has so much downed vegetation that county officials plan to process it for fuel at a South Florida sugar mill.

Counties must pay to collect the other debris - twisted shards of mobile homes, stacks of torn insulation, refrigerators full of smelly food - and toss it in landfills.

The first priority is picking up bags of food spoiled from the lack of refrigeration caused by power outages.

"They all threw away all their perishable food this week," said Marc Bruner, director of planning and environmental programs for the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

Many local business owners hope to see some progress so they can reopen their shops.

Andre Robinson, 46, runs Checkmate Marine, which repairs and sells boats. He doesn't have electricity or gas, but he has about six huge garbage bags overflowing with damaged materials.

"We've thrown away a wet carpet, boat gear, bits of the walls, and we're just getting started," he said.

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