It’s taking forever for Hurricane Michael disaster aid to reach the wrecked Florida Panhandle

By: - August 23, 2019 7:00 am
mexico beach

CNN video of Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael in 2018. Credit: CNN screenshot

Joel Schubert still sounds burned up about the wait for U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers to reach people left homeless by Hurricane Michael last October.

Two thousand or more households qualified for temporary housing, Schubert recalled. But the trailers didn’t come – at least, not in the numbers required.

“By the time the trailers all had arrived, perhaps half the people on the list had been forced into other options,” said Schubert, who is the assistant county manager in the Panhandle’s Bay County. “People just can’t wait. If they’re waiting on a trailer for three or four weeks, they’re going to move out of the area or exercise another option. If they’ve got other options, they’re going to exercise it. Folks aren’t going to stand around or sleep in a tent – why should they?”

Hurricane Michael also smacked rural Jackson County (county seat: Marianna) hard.

“The process involved with FEMA is a lot slower than everybody thinks. They think FEMA’s the savior, but it’s not, really,” Jackson County Commission Chairman Cliff Pate said.

FEMA earmarked $7.2 million for temporary housing in Jackson County, he said.

“We haven’t gotten that money yet, but it’s been allocated to us. We’re 10 months into the process. We’re glad it’s been allocated to us, but we don’t have it.”

Meanwhile, people in Jackson County shelter where they can – with friends and neighbors, in borrowed trailers, elsewhere in Florida, or out of state.

Bay County’s Schubert says FEMA established a “huge” local presence following the storm, which landed as a Category 5 hurricane on Oct. 10 at Mexico Beach

“I don’t want to go on a ‘bash fest’ on them,” Schubert said. “They’re really working with us now, and I hope it’s very successful.”

During his State of the State address before the Florida Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis promised that his close links to President Trump would pay off in an “historic commitment” from the White House to disaster recovery.

FEMA doesn’t pay recovery costs up front – local governments do. “We have to write the check first,” Schubert said, “then we have to go through the process of filing for reimbursement and working with FEMA.”

The Trump administration did pick up a larger portion of the check than standard protocol requires. The feds paid 100 percent of the response and recovery expenses for the first 45 days following the storm, and later increased the federal government’s share to 90 percent. Standard practice provides for a 75 percent federal share, with state and local governments splitting the rest.

But the money hasn’t shown up in a timely way, local officials say.

County Commissioner Pate notes a labor shortage – local governments, schools, and private employers can’t find enough workers because there isn’t enough intact housing and so many people have moved away. The property appraiser hasn’t finished updating home and business values, but the hit to local cities’ tax bases amounted to at least $44 million. A countywide appraisal might take three years.

In addition to Florida Department of Transportation help with debris removal immediately following the storm, the federal government paid half of the $2.6 million Jackson County spent toward clearing roads within the first five days following Michael.

“That’s all we’ve gotten from the federal government in Jackson County at this point. A lot of it, we’re still working on sending in stuff. It takes a while,” Pate said.

A big job

Don’t underestimate the challenge: Hurricane Michael was Florida’s strongest hurricane since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and it caused nearly $1.48 billion in agricultural damage, including $1.3 billion in wrecked timber. Merely clearing waterways of debris might end up costing $167 million, state officials estimated in March. Then there’s damage to homes, public buildings, and infrastructure. Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation estimates insured losses within the state at $6.9 billion.

The state and federal governments have spent less than half that so far on recovery. As of July 10, the federal government had contributed $1.3 billion in Hurricane Michael disaster aid. The state has spent more than $1.26 billion, for which they will be eligible for substantial reimbursement by FEMA, according to Florida Division of Emergency Management numbers.

In Bay County, officials amended their housing ordinances as Michael approached so that residents could park trailers in their yards after the storm hit or park them on group sites, assistant county manager Schubert said. The county offered to help clear debris to make room for trailers, but FEMA declined.

“They have a process, and they stay within their swim lane. Sometimes the swim lanes are too narrow, or don’t comport to the needs of the day. It certainly didn’t go as quickly as we would have liked to have gone. We were wanting to help, to interject process improvements. And their process isn’t always amenable to that,” Schubert said.

Some 180,000 people live in Bay County, which includes seven cities with their own governments and recovery needs, including the county seat of Panama City. Officials have estimated damage to public infrastructure at $660 million. “That’s roughly double our annual budget,” Schubert said.

While they wait for federal and state disaster dollars, local governments are burdened with substantial borrowing costs – money the federal government will not reimburse. Workload for all county workers increases.

“The quicker we get the money back – whether it’s one of the seven cities or the county – the less interest we pay on the money we borrow,” Schubert said.

The feds and the state audit these programs, checking that the work billed was done. In the past, officials have insisted on scrutinizing each “ticket” documenting truckloads of debris picked up and removed before moving cash. For one debris project, Schubert said, “there’s literally like 500,000 tickets. For them to do a one-to-one validation of that would take months, if not years.”

Instead, in Bay County, FEMA agreed to audit “statistically reliable” sample documents, subject to a complete review later. Similarly, the state has agreed to conduct a full audit “on the back end,” Schubert said.

In other counties – damaged, but not on the same scale as Bay County – the state DOT has paid for debris removal.

“Bay County has spent almost as much as DOT did in all the other counties combined,” Jared Moskowitz, the state’s director for emergency management, said in an interview.

“It’s a significant amount of dollars. That’s why FEMA is working with them, understanding that they can’t wait a year to get these dollars back. FEMA doesn’t want to see that – because of their processes – you’ve got counties having to raise taxes or fees while they’re waiting for their dollars to return.”

In other counties, the state is releasing money as soon at the Department of Emergency Management and FEMA audit half of the tickets submitted, splitting the work between them to move money faster, Moskowitz said. Six months after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, the state had dispensed $700,000 in recovery money. Six months after Michael, the number was $203 million.

‘Exhausting every possible avenue’

“Money is constantly dripping out of here. We’re not holding people hostage until we get to 100 percent, where they’re getting into their budgetary season not knowing what the story is,” Moskowitz said.

That’s an important consideration. Cities and counties tend to run on an October to September fiscal year, meaning local officials are writing their budgets right now – and considering where to set local tax rates against vastly reduced property values reflecting damaged businesses and an outflow of residents.

“We are exhausting every possible avenue, and the last option would be to increase the millage rate,” Schubert said. “We have one of the lowest millage rates in the state, but we want to keep it that way. We’re exploring every possible option – and getting our money quicker from FEMA is already one of our options.”

In Jackson County, a $25 million bridge loan program, OK’d by DeSantis in October and extended in late June, has helped agricultural operations replant. Insurance has covered much of the damage to county buildings.

Officials still brace for a long recovery. “There’s just so much stuff,” Pate said, and if anybody tried to predict an end date for the process, he wouldn’t believe it. “Not ’till I get the check.”

“You could talk to people in Homestead who would tell you it took a decade to recover from the Category 5 storm,” Moskowitz said, referring to Hurricane Andrew.

“This was a Cat 5 storm. This was not Matthew. This was not Hermine. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t Irma, either. While Irma was a once in a lifetime event because it affected 45 counties, Irma only did some real damage in Collier and in Monroe. Michael has just obliterated a complete area. Mexico Beach has 85 percent of their structures gone. It’s going to take years for them to recover. It’s our job to help speed the process along by getting the federal resources out as fast as possible,” Moskowitz said.

Hurricane Michael aid by the numbers:

FEMA allocated $1.3 billion for Hurricane Michael recovery. That includes:

$146 million in individual assistance, $217 million in National Flood Insurance Program claims paid, and $642 million in Small Business Administration disaster loans, according to FEMA records. The federal government paid $117 million through other agencies helping with response and recovery.

That bought 27,000 household repair grants and 7,800 “blue roofs” – the tarps used for temporary roof repair. It provided temporary housing for 971 households; the cost of lodging another 2,000 households in hotels; and rent for 21,000. The agency distributed $225.7 million in public assistance grants to local governments to cover debris removal, infrastructure repair, and emergency protective measures.

FEMA’s individual assistance program had benefited more than 42,000 homeowners and renters in 12 counties as of mid-July, helping to pay uninsured or under-insured damage, according to a joint update issued by FEMA and the state. This included home repair and replacement or rental assistance, replacement of personal property, moving and storage costs, and medical and dental expenses.

On Aug 8, FEMA announced a new list of public assistance grants – including $9,416 to house courthouse operations in Jackson County; $5,037 to repair water infrastructure in Panacea; $2,400 to fix a security fence at a juvenile offender treatment program in Bristol; and more than $21,000 to replace spoiled food and repair facilities for the Washington County school system.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.