A FEMA monitor, right, watches as a grapple truck removes debris from a yard in Terry Estates Thursday afternoon. The pile of sheetrock to the monitor’s right could not be picked up because it could not be reached by the truck’s loader.

Dave Rogers / For The Record

Government-sponsored pickup of residential storm debris has begun in Orange County and, thanks to a mutual-aid agreement approved Thursday, the county should be picking up the bill.

Bridge City, Pinehurst, Pine Forest, Rose City, Vidor and West Orange city councils had OK’d wording allowing them to “piggyback” under the county’s debris contract during emergency meetings held earlier this week.

Commissioners’ court held its own special meeting Thursday to make it official, voting 5-0.

AshBritt, Inc., of Deerfield, Florida, has worked with the county through at least two previous disasters.

It is an official FEMA-approved contractor. The county expects to be reimbursed by FEMA for 90 percent of the expected $16 million to $20 million cost of the big haul-off.

The City of Orange made its own debris hauling deal with D&J Contractors, an affiliate of AshBritt.

Shawn Oubre, Orange city manager, indicated in a special meeting with commissioners last Friday that the city wished to participate in the county’s deal but keep its own contractor.

Pickup has begun in the county seat of Orange and in the unincorporated parts of the county. The cities were asked to prioritize neighborhoods to clear the most-trafficked streets first.

FEMA will not pay to remove debris from businesses or non-profits, such as churches or schools.

An excavator piles storm debris at the County Landfill Thursday afternoon as the cleanup for Tropical Storm Harvey ramps up.

The county is allowing taxpayers to haul their own storm debris to the County Landfill for free, but third-party private haulers hired by citizens will not be allowed the same access, commissioners said.

AshBritt’s trucks were picking up in the Mauriceville area Thursday, as well as Terry Estates, just south of the landfill, which is AshBritt’s FEMA-certified debris management area.

The debris will ultimately be disposed of at a site in Newton County.

As of noon Thursday, more than 40 double-trailered trucks had dumped their debris in a rapidly growing pile at the landfill just on that day, said Buddy Lofton, AshBritt’s project manager.

Through 2 p.m. Wednesday, when rains halted the trucks for the day, AshBritt had hauled 10,861 cubic yards of debris, Lofton said.

The flooding from Hurricane Harvey has left the grounds of the landfill muddy and that’s slowing the start of the cleanup mission.

The huge truck-and-trailers weigh 30 tons each empty, Lofton said. His haulers were only able to partially fill their trailers.

Even with that, bulldozers were being used at the landfill to pull the haulers through the muck to and from the unloading area on the edge of the debris pile.

Lofton said as of Thursday afternoon, he had access to five double self-loader trucks with a capacity of 125 cubic yards of trash and four smaller ones. The nine drivers/operators run the trucks from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he said.

The drivers from AshBritt are each shadowed on the job by FEMA-required monitors. They are there to watch the debris transfer from yards to landfill and ensure proper accounting.

The landfill, which is also receiving debris from the city’s hauler J&D, has separate piles for each company and two towers to oversee operations.

Monitors and hauler reps sit in the towers and visually inspect each load and note how full the trucks are. That info is entered into computers and drivers are given receipts for each load.

On a visit to Terry Estates Thursday, Lofton noted how some of the debris could not be picked up because it was more than 10 feet from the roadway.

The trucks, because of their weight, must stay on the roadway, and 10 feet is the reach of their grapple loaders.

Also, a “Do Not Take” message painted on a junked refrigerator was enough to keep the haulers from picking up any of the debris piled in front of that home.

Lofton explained that some homeowners were told by their insurance companies not to allow debris haul-off until their adjusters saw it for themselves.

The haulers were carrying only C&D piles, short for construction and demolition. The giant piles of “white goods,” refrigerators and freezers mostly, will be hauled off on another round of pickups and their refrigerant removed per environmental standards, Lofton said.