The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Managing Debris

by Dr. Airton Kohls - Source NCHRP Report 781

While reading one of the latest Transportation Research Board (TRB) newsletter I found a report that public works and local transportation departments should be aware of: "A Debris Management Handbook for State and Local DOTs and Departments of Public Works" - nchrp_rpt_781.pdf. This NCHRP Report 781 is focused on disaster operations but serves as an excellent source to debris removal on a smaller scale as well.

It is an unfortunate fact that disasters occur all too frequently in the United States. Disasters range from small local road washouts that a state department of transportation (DOT) or a local department of public works (DPW) quickly resolves, to massive storms that require a wide variety of local, state, and contract assistance to resolve. When these large disasters occur, federal reimbursement is usually made available; however, such reimbursement requires detailed documentation to confirm funds expended.

One of the major concerns associated with large disasters is the resulting debris created by such incidents. The removal, transportation, reduction, and disposal of multiple types of debris are required. Transportation routes are a key component of both immediate and long-term recovery efforts. Additionally, transportation and related personnel and equipment play key roles in both response and recovery. When large disasters occur, it is important to clear transportation routes as quickly as possible, for a number of reasons. Emergency assistance personnel and vehicles must have access to the impacted area; survivors require various means of transportation to medical care facilities and shelters. Supplies and equipment for repair and rebuilding must have a reliable path of transportation; debris (sometimes massive amounts) must be removed and disposed of in a proper manner. State DOTs and local DPWs have a tremendous responsibility to respond on short notice and react to these disasters with personnel, equipment, and contracting authorities. These agencies must have individuals who are trained and knowledgeable in responding, quickly assessing needs, making appropriate decisions about mutually exclusive use of resources, and developing both shortand long-term plans related to the debris operations. All of these tasks must be accomplished while addressing multiple demands upon a fixed inventory of personnel and equipment.

The Debris Management Handbook is well structured and details all the important steps of the process, including:

The Handbook concludes "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. . . ." While on the surface, debris removal activities might seem relatively simple, there are a number of considerations and complexities that can arise during operations that advance planning can help to address, including contracting mechanisms, temporary staging and final disposal site selection, environmental issues, and human and animal remains, among others. Communities and agencies that develop and exercise debris management plans in advance of a disaster event are better able to respond to and recover more quickly from the event, allowing their communities to be more resilient. Advance preparation also is likely to limit making mistakes that could jeopardize grant funding if it is available.


The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Big Orange. Big Ideas.

Knoxville, Tennessee 37996 | 865-974-1000
The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System