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Slow pace of cleanup tests Oklahoma City residents' patience

Oklahoma City says it will hire another contractor to speed removal of debris from the May 31 windstorms and flooding.
by William Crum Modified: July 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm •  Published: July 11, 2013

Stuart Hall is under doctor's orders to walk as he recovers from hip replacement surgery.

That's not so easy these days in his southwest Oklahoma City neighborhood, where debris from the May 31 storms still is piled on sidewalks.

“We haven't seen the city doing a thing,” Hall said Thursday.

City officials say they underestimated the extent of damage caused by that evening's high winds and torrential rains, and acknowledge cleanup efforts have been slow.

The city now estimates contractors will haul about 12,000 tons of debris left behind by the May 31 storms. Only about half that amount has been hauled in the first six weeks.

The work is separate from cleanup after the May 20 tornado, which hit neighborhoods south of SW 134 Street and west of Santa Fe Avenue before crossing into Moore.

Tornado cleanup operations appear to be going more smoothly in Moore.

Debris removal crews have made at least two or three passes through areas damaged by May tornadoes and storms, and most debris has been hauled off, said Steve Shawn, president of Silver Star Construction Co., which has the debris removal contract there.

Hall lives in Greenbriar Eastlake Estates, north of SW 134. He said the neighborhood was damaged in the May 3, 1999, tornado, but cleanup back then was much faster.

Asplundh Environmental Services has the contract to collect May 31 storm debris — much of it downed tree limbs and damaged fence boards.

Jean Litterell, who lives in the 200 block of SE 37, between Shields Boulevard and the railroad tracks, said she finally got a response to her calls from a city employee Thursday morning.

She said she was told Asplundh crews were working west to east and had reached May Avenue.

“Oh, Lord, it's going to be a couple of months now,” she said.

An elm tree across the street came down May 31, blocking her street. Volunteers with chain saws cleared the street. Limbs are piled in her yard and yards of her neighbors, with massive logs from the stately tree's trunk stacked across the street.

Throughout her neighborhood and to the west, along streets flanking Grand Boulevard, debris piles sit rotting — on a rough average — in front of every third house.

At Litterell's church, Faith Center Fellowship at SW 34 and Blackwelder, Howard Ringgenberg was sweeping debris and grass clippings from the street Thursday morning.

A truck came by Tuesday morning to collect debris from the block, Ringgenberg said. Brown grass and bare earth mark the spot where debris was piled for so long in front of the church.

Ward 4 City Councilman Pete White — who was “ready to vent” after receiving so many calls about the slow pace of debris removal — said the city had a good plan but failed to convey to residents the magnitude of the problem.

“We're not saying anything — we'll talk to you later and not calling people back,” he said.

The devastating May 20 tornado, followed 11 days later by damaging winds and flooding, amount to a challenge unlike any other the city has faced, White said.

“It's a monster,” he said. “Given the circumstances, the city is doing the best it can right now. We've got to find a way to make it better.”

Jim Lewellyn, who manages cleanup for the city, said earlier this week that an additional contractor would be hired to speed recovery from the May 31 storms. Additional crews will be working weekends to catch up.

In the meantime, Hall steers his walker around debris covering the sidewalk or detours into the street to get in the half-mile to a mile of daily exercise his doctor has prescribed.

The dried-out piles of vegetation just add to the challenge of breaking in his new right hip.

“You have to be sure when you go by a trash pile you're not stabbed by a sharp stick,” he said.

by William Crum
Reporter
OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman.
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