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FEMA funds Westchester, Rockland's storm-tree cleanup

Ramapo Parks Department groundkeeper, Michael Lomelino, 42, of

Ramapo Parks Department groundkeeper, Michael Lomelino, 42, of Tuxedo, examines trees that have been collected at the Saddle River Pool in Ramapo. An excess of downed trees from Hurricane Sandy are being recycled into mulch at the park. (Dec. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: Elizabeth Daza

A FEMA-funded state program is fueling Westchester and Rockland's post-Sandy tree-clearing efforts, with hopes of restoring the Hudson Valley to a new normal by January.

The sheer scope of hauling away thousands of trees felled by the deadly Oct. 29 superstorm is more formidable because municipalities are swamped with leaf removal that has local public works facilities piled high with leaves collected by residents. With no room to store the downed trees, the state has stepped in to haul away logs, branches and brush.

"We're working frantically to take out their leaves at the same time the state is working to take out their fallen trees," said Louis Vetrone, Westchester County's deputy commissioner for Environmental Facilities.

In Westchester, the county is busy through the end of December with picking up about 180,000 tons of leaves annually from municipal public works yards. The leaves are then trucked outside of the county for composting.

After the storm, the county accepted the state's offer to "alleviate the pressure on these municipalities because there just isn't enough room to store everything," Vetrone added.

At this point,the cleanup in hard-hit Harrison is about 60 percent complete and "the county has been sensational about responding," Mayor Ron Belmont said. "When we're full, we call and they take our stuff away."

In Rockland, many smaller municipalities were able to handle their own tree removal, but the towns of Ramapo, and in particular Clarkstown, have "embraced" the state assistance, said Christopher Jensen, program coordinator for the county's Office of Fire and Emergency Services. "It's lightening the loads of the towns and has been a win-win for them."

While big logs are a valuable commodity that will make their way to mills, much of the Rockland debris is being fed to wood chippers that have been running seven days a week -- even on Thanksgiving Day, said Christopher St. Lawrence, head of the Rockland County Sewer Authority. Operation central has been the parking lot at the municipal pool on Saddle River Road in Airmont, where mountains of wood chips rise 40 feet high. Municipal trucks start pulling up at 4 a.m. and several other locations in Ramapo are accepting cut-up trees as well, St. Lawrence said.

"After we double grind them, they will be available to the public in January," he said.

On Nov. 10, the state Department of Transportation put out to bid a $3.7 million contract for the post-Sandy tree removal program. The contract was awarded a few days later to Eastern Excavation of Elmsford, which began work immediately, said DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen. The contractor, who is picking up trees strewn along state, as well as county and local roads, has until May 2013 to complete the job, "but we expect it to be done long before that," she said. Eastern Excavation did not return calls for comment.

While the program also covers Orange County, its use there has been "limited" because "we weren't as hard hit as Westchester and Rockland," said county spokeswoman Orysia Dmytrenko. She said most of tree cleanup in Orange was finished weeks ago.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked the federal government for $689.6 million in Hudson Valley aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which left five dead in the region. Westchester would receive $527.8 million; Rockland $143.7 million and other Hudson Valley counties $18.1 million.

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