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Millions Of Pounds Worth Of Tornado Debris: Where Does It All Go?

Kate Carlton

It’s been nearly a year since a series of tornadoes devastated central Oklahoma, destroying homes, parks and commercial buildings. During the recovery process, construction crews gathered over 300,000 tons of debris between just Oklahoma City and Moore. 

Jeff Bedick is the District Manager for Waste Connections, which operates a landfill in west Oklahoma City. The facility sits on 200 acres, which mostly just looks like a giant, grass-covered hill on the side of the highway.

“What you're looking at right here, this is the oldest portion of the landfill, and it's also the completed portion of the landfill,” Bedick said.

His landfill is one of three main facilities in the Oklahoma City area that took debris after the tornadoes.

On a normal day, this location sees 500 - 600 trucks, delivering nearly 2,000 tons of garbage. But following the storms, the amount grew exponentially.

“Our biggest day during the tornado cleanup was about 6,000 tons in a day. We did that pretty steadily for about a month, maybe two months we did that, so it really consumed a lot of space in the landfill,” Bedick said.

And getting rid of all that garbage was no small feat, says Oklahoma City Public Works Director Eric Wenger.

“If you picture a tornado or devastation from a tornado, I mean it's large piles of debris,” Wenger said. “We're talking dump trucks and front-end loaders that have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

And think about it: large piles of debris include things like batteries, bleach, pesticides and paint, things that aren’t usually allowed in a normal trash bin. So all that had to be sorted.  

“We work very closely with the residents to start separating those household hazardous wastes and delivering those to the curb so the city could pick those up first. And then the heavy debris was then taken care of by contractors,” Wenger said.

Given the amount of damage it had to clean up, Oklahoma City hired two main contractors to help after the May 20th storm.

One of them was Young’s General Contracting from Missouri, where Kyle Young was the Project Manager.

“We've done other tornado work before, but this is probably one of the more severely hit areas I've seen from any disaster that we've worked on,” Young said.

Young had about 40 trucks working for three months straight to clear the streets. And many of those trucks went to Jeff Bedick’s Waste Connections facility, where drivers from other companies were also headed. That created bottlenecks at times, but Young says his team managed the best they could.

“It can be confusing when you have multiple crews working, but it's not the worst thing ever. It can be worked around obviously,” Young said.

From his end, Jeff Bedick says there wasn’t much he could do about all the extra traffic. He brought in additional employees to help with the extra work, but accommodating so many truckloads still proved difficult.  

“Your operation is designed around a certain amount of volume, a certain amount of trucks and all that. And to be able to take it three times in basically a couple of weeks sometimes is a challenge,” Bedick said.

He says that after an event like a tornado, it’s tough because commercial vehicles get mixed in with families in pickup trucks, just trying to clean their yards.

And though he’d like to prepare better for upcoming storms, each leaves a unique debris footprint, so it’s hard to know what to expect.


The Oklahoma Tornado Project stories are produced by KGOU News, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reports may be used in any media with appropriate credit given to KGOU and CPB.

Kate Carlton Greer was a general assignment reporter for KGOU and Oklahoma Public Media Exchange.
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