Asked why parts of the Florida Keys remain severely damaged nearly seven months after Hurricane Irma, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had one word: Bureaucracy.
“It’s a pretty straightforward task,” Rubio said, standing in a trailer park in Marathon where a canal is still choked with debris and filth from the storm. “Get the money that we’ve already voted for down here so they can hire people to clean this up.”
“Don’t clap yet, we’ve got to get the money,” Rubio said. “We just voted for the money; the hard part is getting the federal government to release it. We’ll keep banging on the door. There’s nothing else they can use the money for — it’s appropriated for this.”
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Rubio added, “Next time we get back here, these things will be cleaned up.”
Rubio also attended a one-hour roundtable discussion at the Marathon Government Center where he spoke with mostly elected leaders about struggles in the Keys over affordable housing.
“We’ve had a housing crisis in this community for decades,” said County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, of Key West. “The storm exacerbated it and revealed the real depth of the problem.”
One solution, she said, is to purchase property and deed-restrict it for affordable and workforce housing.
“We don’t have the depth of resources to be able to do that,” Carruthers said.
Local leaders, including Key West City Manager Jim Scholl, told Rubio that Keys cities and Monroe County had spent all or most of their emergency reserves on Irma, and need to replenish those reserves soon since hurricane season is only two months away.
As of March 30, the county had submitted $17.4 million in expenses for reimbursement. So far, FEMA has approved $3.3 million and has sent the funding to the state Department of Emergency Management. But DEM has yet to finish its approval process and send the funds to the county, said county spokeswoman Cammy Clark.
With resources exhausted and no FEMA reimbursement yet, the county had to take out a $40 million line of credit so it can cover Irma expenses.
Monroe County estimates Hurricane Irma cost it $93.3 million.
Rubio said the FEMA approval process takes longer today to make sure the fraud that took place during Hurricane Katrina does not repeat itself. “But this seems like an overcorrection,” he said.
“We need to make sure the money is approved. Can’t spend it if Congress doesn’t appropriate it,” Rubio added. “Step two now is getting the money out of the agencies and into your bank accounts, so you can hire companies to do the canal cleanup and the like.”
“FEMA reimbursement, which depending upon who you talk to on any given day, it’s either in Tallahassee or in Washington, but it isn’t here,” Rubio said.
Initial damage reports found that 4,156 homes in the Keys were either destroyed or severely damaged by the storm.
FEMA spokesman John H. Mills said more than $300 million in federal funding has already been provided to survivors in the Florida Keys and that FEMA is still working in the Keys.
“FEMA is still speaking with survivors by phone and in person,” Mills said. “More than 10,000 households in the Keys have received FEMA money to help them recover.”
While leaving the trailer park, Rubio joked that he could personally help out with cleaning out Keys canals.
“I’ll get my 20-footer and start pulling things out,” Rubio said.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen