Fighting Sandy debris-removal crooks: There’s an app for that

Updated 26 November 2012
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Fighting Sandy debris-removal crooks: There’s an app for that

NEW YORK: A devastating storm like Sandy can bring out the crooks — and not just opportunistic looters and burglars.
Officials dealing with the destruction in the US Northeast say one of their biggest headaches is debris-removal fraud committed by greedy contractors who inflate their share of the millions in cleanup funds doled out by federal agencies.
But new digital technology created by private companies and municipalities in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Irene is making it much easier to stop firms from overcharging by claiming they have trucked away more wreckage than they have.
The new software combats fraud and also streamlines the vexing municipal task of documenting every last dumpster of debris or broken tree branch to prove to Federal Emergency Management Agency auditors that the money was properly spent.
Ray Iovino learned his lesson after 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which caused nearly $ 16 billion in economic damage across eight northeastern US states.
As assistant director of the bureau of equipment and inventory for Long Island’s Nassau County, Iovino remembered all too well the messy months of paperwork that consumed his office after Irene felled nearly 2,500 trees in his area.
“The first thing they asked for were the pictures of every tree that went down in the storm,” Iovino said, in reference to FEMA. County officials, unfamiliar with federal regulations, had simply written down the locations of the trees, which wasn’t good enough.
“FEMA said they’d have to go out and look at every single location,” Iovino said. “It was a nightmare.”
FEMA also “wanted to know which trucks trucked what debris where and when and how,” he said.
As Superstorm Sandy raced up the US eastern seaboard in late October, Iovino began researching a more efficient system to document the massive damage he expected, and found DebrisTech, a Mississippi debris-removal company whose chief executive was himself a victim of fraud after Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast region in 2005.
At that time, DebrisTech CEO Brooks Wallace was a partner in a civil engineering firm that had won a $ 200 million contract to remove Katrina wreckage from six Mississippi counties. The firm was using a paper ticketing system to track the trucks hauling away debris, a standard industry practice.
It was a huge job and Wallace’s company sub-contracted some of the work out to other firms, including Florida-based J.A.K. DC & ER, whose owner saw an opportunity, according to federal prosecutors.
J.A.K. owner Allan Kitto peeled off the stickers Wallace’s firm had affixed to his trucks and sent the same trucks back to be stickered again, inflating the number of trucks he appeared to be using and the number of debris hauls he was making.
At night, Wallace said, Kitto would “sneak into my office at two or three in the morning and slide phony paper tickets into the stack of real tickets.” Each ticket represented a truck full of debris that Kitto’s trucks allegedly hauled away. By the time he was caught, Kitto had submitted more than $ 700,000 worth of fake paper tickets, according to federal prosecutors.
Wallace became aware of the scam and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2006, Kitto and two others were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to defraud the government. In 2007, Kitto was convicted and sentenced to 25 months in prison.
Wallace, an engineer, began thinking about how to avoid a repeat of that hurricane cleanup experience. He spent $ 60,000 developing custom software to digitally track debris trucks with barcode scanners, digital photos and global positioning systems. That data would then be wirelessly uploaded to a central database.
DebrisTech, one of a handful of private companies using the digital tracking software, leases out iPads loaded with its software to municipalities for $ 12 per device per day. Nassau County leased about 100 of DebrisTech’s 120 devices, Iovino said.
The software also maps the locations of downed or removed trees using GPS coordinates. Iovino has plotted the GPS coordinates of each of the county’s 2,641 downed trees — a figure Iovino expects to rise to 5,000 by the time the cleanup is finished — onto a digital map of Nassau in the county’s emergency operations center. “It’s amazing what a difference this software has made,” he said. “Now when anything is picked up on Nassau County property, we know the size of the truck, the percentage the truck is full, we’ve got a picture of the debris in the truck, which transfer site it went to, and where it is right now.
Debris-removal fraud is widespread after major natural disasters, according to federal and state law enforcement officials.
“You can count on it every time,” said Kathleen Wylie, Deputy Director of the Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud. “It’s one of the first things we look for.”


Dishonest contractors will “do just about anything you could imagine — they’ll put water in trucks to weigh them down, they’ll put blocks underneath the debris to make the trucks look full. Or the guy at the gate will give a driver a new ticket for driving through with the same load.”
Digital debris-removal technology is also being tested by municipalities like New York City. Programrs working with the city’s Parks Department recently completed work on software to replace an arduous and time-consuming paper ticketing system, said Jeremy Barrick, the Parks Department’s deputy chief of forestry.
“We were using paper ticketing after Irene, and we sat down afterwards to talk about how we could track debris removal more efficiently,” Barrick said. It led to the development of proprietary software known among city officials as “Storm Mobile.”


Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

Updated 23 September 2018
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Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

  • A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil
  • Ivory Coast is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020

JACQUEVILLE, Ivory Coast: Hi-tech, cheap — and quiet. The Ivorian resort of Jacqueville just outside Abidjan is betting on solar-powered three-wheelers as it looks to replace traditional but noisy and dirty bush taxis.
“It’s cheaper and relaxing!” says local trader Sandrine Tetelo, of the Chinese-made “Saloni” or “Antara” tricycles, which could eventually spell the end for old-school “woro-woro” four-wheelers as Jacqueville looks to make itself Ivory Coast’s premier eco city.
The mini-cars, 2.7 meters (8.8 feet) long and two meters high, are covered in solar panels each fitted out with six 12-volt batteries, giving the vehicles a range of 140 kilometers (87 miles).
Returning from a visit to China, the solar cars’ promotor Marc Togbe pitched his plan to mayor Joachim Beugre, who was immediately sold.
“We are used to seeing (typically old and beaten up) bush taxis pollute the atmosphere and the environment. We said to ourselves, if we could only replace them by solar trikes,” said Beugre.
“The adventure started in January with two little cars,” added Togbe, who has created a partnership with local businessman Balla Konate.
“I went to China with a friend,” says Konate, “and afterwards I sent four youngsters to Lome for training with a friend who had spoken to me about the project.”
He wants to extend operations to Odienne and Korhogo, towns in the north, the country’s sunniest region.
“Today, a dozen cars are up and running. We are right in the test phase. More and more people are asking for them,” says Beugre, seeing a chance to kill several birds with one solar stone.
Long isolated, his town, nestled between a laguna and the sea, has flourished in terms of real estate and tourism since the 2015 inauguration of a bridge linking Jacqueville to the mainland and cutting transit time to Abidjan to less than an hour.
For the start of the school year in October, Jacqueville plans to bring on stream a 22-seater “solar coach” designed to help deal with “the thorny issue of pupils’ transport.”
Many schoolchildren typically have to travel tens of kilometers from their home village to urban schools.
So far, the trikes have also provided work for around 20 people including drivers and mechanics.
“We’re on the go from six in the morning and finish around 10 or even midnight, weekends too,” says Philippe Aka Koffi, a 24-year-old who has been working as a driver for five months.
“It’s pleasant for doing your shopping more quickly,” says an impressed passenger, Aholia Guy Landry, after riding in a vehicle which can carry four people, driver included.
A big plus is the 100 CFA francs (0.15 euros/$0.18) price of a trip — half a typical downtown “woro-woro” fare — helping to attract between 500 and 1,000 people a day, according to the town hall and promoter.
A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil.
The wells outside the town produce 235 million cubic feet of gas per day, while several foreign firms run pipelines taking oil and gas across the town to feed the refineries at Abidjan.
But the municipality — total budget 140 million CFA francs — sees none of the profits, an issue which has drawn public ire in the past.
The 50-million-CFA trike project is just one piece in a much larger jigsaw which includes the construction of a new eco city on a 240-hectare site among coconut trees.
“It will not be a city for the rich,” insists Beugre, showing off a blueprint replete with cycle paths and a university.
“All social strata who respect the environment will be able to live there,” he adds.
Yet at national level, such plans are conspicuous by their absence.
Ivory Coast, west African leader in electricity production — 75 percent of which comes from thermal energy and the remainder from hydroelectric dams — is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020.
Even though by September the country had burned through barely one single megawatt of solar energy for this year, Beugre is undaunted.
“Our ecological project will go all the way” and “stand up to the power of oil and gas,” says the cowboy-hatted local politician.
“In years to come, we want to ensure that these solar-power machines become the main means of travel in the area.”