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A Hurricane Ian debris pile that lingered, and spread some joy

Kathy and David Thomas pose by their decorated debris pile on Friday, December 2, 2022. It has white lights, a wreath and a red bow, and an American flag on it.
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Kathy and David Thomas pose by their decorated debris pile on Friday, December 2, 2022.

The Thomases live on 72nd Drive East in northern Sarasota, an area that was spared the worst of Hurricane Ian in late September. But their tree debris hung around for more than two months.

Kathy and David Thomas live in a suburb in northern Sarasota, the kind of neighborhood you’d normally describe as "well-manicured," with tidy, pastel homes and pristine sidewalks.

"We have all these beautiful royal palms," said Kathy, pointing to several in her front yard and down the street.

Kathy says when Hurricane Ian tore through in late September, many trees got a haircut.

"So this whole cul de sac, as you can see, had a lot of the fronds snap off green. And that takes a lot of wind, really, to do that," she said.

“Other than that, we didn't have any damage to the house. But our friends down in the south certainly did.”

The Thomases and their neighbors didn't lose power in the storm, and began collecting all those fallen palm fronds as soon as Ian passed.

Piles about as tall and wide as SUVs lined the streets.

A month passed. Then another. Thanksgiving came and went. The debris was still there.

The Thomases aren't alone. Cleanup crews in Florida have collected more than 23 million cubic yards of debris left by Hurricane Ian two months ago. That’s roughly enough to fill the Empire State Building more than a dozen times.

Some debris piles still linger, possibly up to 8 million cubic yards statewide, if estimates from the Florida Department of Emergency Management and Army Corps of Engineers are correct.

By late November, the Thomases’ minds turned to Christmas.

"And we were just sitting on the porch one night, and I was saying, 'How do you want to decorate this year?' And I said, 'I know, I'll decorate the pile out front,' " said David, 62.

"We laughed. And I said, Let's do it just for fun," said Kathy, 63.

David cast white lights over the brown fronds. They put up a sign that says "Let it Snow,” and Kathy had the idea to put an American flag on top. As time passed, the pile shrank and grew denser, standing only about knee-high.

"I tried to make it look like a boat, sailing the stormy seas," laughed David.

A neighbor took a picture. A Tampa weatherman posted iton social media. Soon the Thomases' decorated debris was shared thousands of times.

"I guess it struck a nerve. People are so — they're dying for a smile," said David.

A neighbor named David, who had an even larger debris pile near his driveway, called the Thomases "our heroes," and said he liked what they did with their pile.

"I love it. It's a kind of a protest. It's kind of like, 'Manatee County, look!' Showing you that Manatee County's not really doing their job," he said.

A spokesman for Manatee County said Monday the debris collection will be done by Christmas, and the lion's share will be done before the Dec. 7 deadline for federal reimbursement.

"Clearly, the bulk of the debris has been collected, but this is a far greater total than anticipated when the work began — just hours after Ian had passed," said Bill Logan.

"One contractor is already done, another anticipates their work to be done this week, while the third contractor will continue through the 23rd."

The debris pile is lit with white lights for Christmas, just like two smaller trees in the front yard.
Kerry Sheridan

For the Thomases, it was never about criticizing local officials. It was about making the best of … any pile.

"It isn't that you can control the things that come in, but how you deal with it," said Kathy.

"Smile. This is so much easier than the other way," added David.

The Thomases are happy that their decorated debris spread joy.

But, they were also ecstatic to see it go.

Monday afternoon, two men in orange vests loaded it — and the neighbors’ debris — into the back of a massive truck and hauled it away.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.