ENGLEWOOD, Fla. (WFLA) — Homeowners living in the “smelly” shadow of enormous piles of Hurricane Ian debris remain concerned about odors, dust and their slow-moving neighbors.
What was once a wide-open field in a quiet corner of Sarasota County near the grass runways of Buchan Airport is now just the opposite and no one is sure when the peace and fresh air will return.
Jack Flavell said as many as 15 homeowners are hit the hardest and he claims county leaders did not explain the true impact of their plan to use the area to dump debris.
“It smells like anything foul that you can imagine. It’s a unique terrible smell,” Flavell said. “They never let us know how big it would be. The truck drivers say they don’t know when it’s going to end.”
County spokesperson Brianne Grant said county staff “performed outreach to homeowners” who live near the airfield and told them about its “temporary use.”
Heather Durnin provided pictures of what it looked like before the dumping started.
The county-owned airfield offered an expansive view of sunsets, wildlife and occasional small planes taking off and landing. Now, the piles block that scenery.
A previously gravel road is now covered with about a foot of ground-up debris.
Video taken from a plane before the storm shows an open area peppered with homes. Now, the sometimes steaming debris covers several acres.
While residents said they are annoyed by the smell and dust from the debris that blows their way, many said they are also worried about the dozens of gopher tortoises that burrow in the field.
“You see them run across here and eat in the grass,” Tim Durnin said. “Then they go back in the brush.”
Durnin said the piles of brush are “too close” to the tortoise burrows and impacting them.
“[Florida] Fish and Wildlife knows about it,” Durnin said. “I called and complained.”
According to Grant’s statement, “the area of Gopher Tortoise habitat was cordoned-off and remains protected from debris management trucks.”
Grant also said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have conducted several site visits at all of the county’s debris management sites.
Nathalie Smith, a Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Gopher Tortoise Agent, said she is watching the reptiles and their habitat closely.
“I get out [of my vehicle] and walk around,” Smith said. “Everything looks okay and I haven’t seen any signs of injuries or impacts yet.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Public Information Officer Carli Segelson said “a permit isn’t required to place hurricane debris during a declared state of emergency.”
“However, we have reached out to disposal areas and local governments to provide information on tortoise [and] burrow avoidance when placing debris,” Segelson said.
Whether for reptiles or residents, there is no indication of how long it will take to remove the debris from the otherwise bucolic setting.
The piles are now taller than Sherri Kerbel’s deck and she admits she was “annoyed” at first. Now, she feels lucky considering how many homes were destroyed, and she is optimistic about when it will be cleared away.
“It won’t be a couple of years,” Kerbel said. “I’m hoping it will be done by February, maybe.”
Phillip Chabot, who lives about 500 yards from the debris, also said he understands the debris from Ian had to go somewhere. But he is also concerned about the cleanup.
“Nobody’s told us how long it’s going to be there,” Chabot said. “The worst-case scenario? I think we’re looking at at least 6 to 8 months. I don’t like that.”
Flavell said he appreciates the need to protect the tortoises, but he joked that at least they can move to other areas.
“I can’t relocate unless I just leave and knock the bottom out of the price of my home,” Flavell said. “I can’t imagine them bringing it back to what it was once was.”