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Ever wonder who Gaston is? Learn more about the people behind those big clean up trucks we now know and love

December 15, 2022
By Sheila Evans

No one in Boca Grande could have missed the presence of Gaston TDR on the Island the last two months. Their double-container knuckle loaders are hard to miss. They have been up and down the Island picking up storm debris and helping residents get back to some sense of normal. 

The “TDR” in Gaston’s name stands for “Tree Debris Recycling,” and is one of just a few companies in the country that provide a giant helping hand when disasters, such as hurricanes, strike. That helping “hand” is personified for most of us by the sight of a “knuckle-boom” truck picking up tons of debris left by Hurricane Ian.  

Gaston is headquartered in Gainesville, Florida, and has yards in several parts of the state. For Lee County, Gaston is a subcontractor under CrowderGulf, of Mobile, Alabama. At this time, Gaston is focused on debris removal in Lee County, including Boca Grande. 

Art and Vanita Auville are a husband and wife team supervising the work. They are staying in Boca Grande as the work continues. They are living and working out of their trailer, parked with other employee trailers at the end of Wheeler Road, where the debris from the Island is being staged for removal.

Art has been with the company for 12 years and Vanita for about 10. They normally manage two of Gaston’s yards, one in Hillsborough County and one in Hernando County. They make a good team, with Art overseeing the physical work and Vanita doing all the accounting, employment work and other paperwork. 

They were high school sweethearts, but when Art decided to join the military, Vanita was not interested in that life, and they called off their engagement. Both eventually married other people. But in 2003 and ‘04 several hurricanes hit Florida and blew them back together. 

Single again, Art called Vanita’s family to see if they were doing ok after the storms. In the process he discovered that Vanita was also single. The rest is history. They married in 2009, on the first day of hurricane season, June 1. After 22 years of being apart, they knew they belonged together. 

They enjoy working together and being of help to people. Although the circumstances are not ideal, they are also enjoying being in Boca Grande. Vanita said there are about 12 workers staying in the Village, with an additional few day-laborers added when needed. She said most of the day-laborers are from the Fort Myers area and come back and forth when work is available. Otherwise, they find their own accommodations. 

The Gaston workers all stay in their own trailers at the debris site. “They are like family,” Vanita said. 

They can be often found cooking together at night or going out together to relax. Most nights, though, they are too tired to do much socializing. Their day is usually from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., and it is strenuous work.

Gaston is a family-owned company whose founder is still active in the day-to-day activities of the business. Bill Gaston started the company in 1972 as a tree trimming service, cutting trees and hauling away the debris himself. As the business grew and there was more debris generated, he added a second business that would clean up the wood cuttings and haul it away for customers. 

Following a state mandate in 1985 that vegetation could no longer be dumped into Florida landfills, Gaston Tree Debris Recycling began operations. They started the process of permitting the very first tree, yard and land-clearing debris recycling center in the state. After a while, Bill added his third related company, Gaston Mulch and Soil, which chipped, mulched and packaged the waste into reusable products. 

Today, the Gaston family of companies (Gaston Tree Service, Gaston Tree Debris Recycling and Gaston Mulch and Soil) offers customers a full-service, comprehensive, expert tree service team. In fact, some customers may eventually buy wood chips or mulch that originated as a tree on their own property.

Since the same expertise and equipment needed for these businesses, are also needed when big storms cause widespread damage to vegetation and property, Gaston has become an important player in the storm debris scene. They have responded to emergency cleanup projects from the Florida Keys to Oklahoma to New York  and up and down the East Coast. 

When it comes to storm clean-up, the company handles all types of debris, not only vegetative waste. At the Wheeler Road site, construction and demolition waste is stored in one area, with the vegetation in another. The tree and other natural debris is never burned, but chipped or mulched so it can be used for other purposes. In the case of Hurricane Ian debris, there is no way for Gaston to reclaim it, so it is being hauled to the Atlas Organics site on Gasparilla Road in Placida. The non-organic debris is being hauled to the SLD Landfill on Zemel Road and US41, just south of Punta Gorda. 

Art noted that Gaston is only clearing the debris from the Lee County portion of the Island. CrowderGulf’s contract does not include Charlotte County, so another company is responsible for disposing of the debris from that part of the Island. He said he has kept his trucks on hand, however, in case that changes in the near future.

At this point, Art and Vanita expect Gaston to be part of the Boca Grande community for about another month. They estimate that about 95 percent of the debris has been picked up at this point. “But there is still work to be done,” Vanita explained

Before they ever started picking up debris, the team had to lay down a thick layer of mulch throughout the entire park. This has been protecting the soil underneath. It also will assist Gaston in restoring the park to the condition it was in before the storm – or better.  

Vanita said they will remove the layer of mulch, and in the process pull up any glass, nails, screws and other small bits of debris so they will not be embedded in the park’s ground. They will reseed the grass, repair any fencing and leave the park in pristine condition.

Art’s and Vanita’s commitment to restoring Boca Grande to its pre-storm quality reflects the overall mission of the Gaston Group, and fits well into the environment of the Village. That mission statement says:   

• Be Kind – We never know what other people are going through.

• Be Safe – Everything we do is dangerous. We all want to come home at the end of the day.

• Do the right thing – Always do your best, even though your “best” may be different every day.