In recent years, as a result of climate change, emergency events have become more common and more severe. 2020 marked the most active hurricane season on record, with intense storms battering the southeastern United States. And in the West, devastating fires in multiple states made for the most destructive year for wildfires in history.
In a time of crisis or disaster, garbage, debris and recycling collection is central to a community’s cleanup and rebuilding. These crises pose challenges to our typical waste and recycling collection services—creating different types of waste that must be responsibly managed. To mitigate the impact of emergency events, and to speed up recovery, WM has established national strategies and support systems to assist local operations.
WM’s “Green Team” is a group of highly skilled drivers and technicians whose sole function is to assist areas impacted by natural disasters, weather events and other unforeseen circumstances where additional or supplemental resources are needed to maintain customer service expectations. Step-by-step guidance prepares our teams to respond safely and quickly. Each year, we review and update our disaster management plans, building on what we have learned to improve our response.
This work is both a function of our business and an obligation to the communities we serve. In addition to providing cleanup and disposal services, WM regularly provides team members and communities with the supplies and support they need to rebuild.
Five major hurricanes hit the U.S. Gulf Coast within a 90-day period in 2020, the most damaging of which was Hurricane Laura, which struck southwestern Louisiana and the Texas border. After the storms made landfall, WM ensured our team members were safe and accounted for. Then, WM responders surveyed the area to ensure that buildings and other infrastructure were safe to resume operations.
We assisted local communities by restoring critical infrastructure services to the area. As one of the first responders, we delivered roll-off containers to essential businesses and utilities, local hospitals, grocery stores and shelters. We deployed a Green Team of approximately 20 team members who assisted with relief efforts, including driving vehicles, cleaning up debris and preparing meals. In addition, we established an Emergency Storm Debris Disposal facility to accept storm debris from FEMA responders assisting with recovery and reconstruction efforts.
Response teams came to the aid of those whose homes had been damaged or destroyed, providing tarping for roofs, hotel accommodations, supplies and meals. More than 100 affected employees received compensation through our WM Employee Cares Fund, an employee-supported fund that assists employees impacted by disasters such as these.
Beyond the internal cleanup and recovery process, WM prioritized communicating our operational status to our customers through every available medium. We also kept in contact with the employees affected by the hurricanes through the WM Now app and other communications.
In March of 2020, Middle Tennessee was hit with a series of deadly tornadoes that caused more than $1 billion in damage across the area. WM operates the only construction and demolition (C&D) facility in the region and worked closely with the local and federal government to maintain service and facilitate debris removal from affected areas. Our team quickly ramped up operations to accommodate the approximately 78,000 tons of C&D debris, 22,000 tons of green waste and 1,475 loads of other debris that came into our Southern Services Landfill and Eco Park over the course of three months. The green waste that was diverted from our landfill operations to our Eco Park was repurposed around the facility for road bedding and other projects. With the help of Green Team members and dedicated drivers, we were able to keep the clean-up process on track.
The impacts of wildfire season in 2020 were felt throughout the western U.S. and Canada. In California, where power blackouts often disrupt our operations and our ability to communicate with drivers and customers, we require backup generators and that call centers maintain service continuity across the state during fire season.
During the 2020 wildfire season, 4.4 million acres of land burned in northern California alone. We helped prepare our team members and customers for the impact by taking inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and safety glasses and reminding people of the importance of having an evacuation plan in place while also keeping a clean vegetation border around homes and other buildings. As the fires spread, our local Safety Director held daily phone calls and advised District Managers and Route Managers to ensure drivers wore the proper PPE. Technicians made sure collection trucks had working air conditioning and filters, and drivers were advised to stay in the cab as much as possible and to take breaks if they felt any effects from the smoke. In Southern California, the Bobcat Fire burned over 115,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest. We provided dumpsters and portable toilet services to a nearby equestrian facility that provided shelter for hundreds of animals and volunteers.
Oregon experienced its most destructive wildfire season on record. Fires across the state burned more than one million acres of land, killed seven people and required more than 40,000 residents to evacuate. Several WM employees had to evacuate their homes, and unhealthy smoke required WM to close two transfer stations for multiple days. During these service disruptions, WM proactively communicated service alerts to customers via a regional website, emails, phone calls and texts. WM employees also pitched in to help their neighbors, offering the use of their property for evacuees and crews fighting the fires.
Our landfills in these regions now anticipate debris from yearly fires, and we continue to build capacity to allow us to accept debris and assist in fire and hurricane cleanup.
How WM Responds
to Natural Disasters
- Communicating regularly with customers and team members
- Delivering roll-off containers to assist in cleanup efforts
- Increasing landfill capacity to accommodate debris
- Providing on-the-ground support through our WM Green Team
- Supporting affected employees with the WM Employee Cares Fund