Florida Keys

Florida Keys waiting for millions in FEMA money after Irma — and hurricane season is near

Maria Stotts and Heather Mueller, volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clear debris from a Monroe County sheriff's deputy home damaged by a 6-foot storm surge in Big Pine Key after Hurricane Irma hit the island chain in September 2017.
Maria Stotts and Heather Mueller, volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clear debris from a Monroe County sheriff's deputy home damaged by a 6-foot storm surge in Big Pine Key after Hurricane Irma hit the island chain in September 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Monroe County and several Florida Keys municipalities are waiting to be reimbursed by the federal government for tens of millions dollars in recovery costs incurred in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September.

The reasons why that money hasn’t reached the county and local governments six months later depends on whom you ask. But what is clear is that local governments need to replenish general fund cash reserves that were either severely diminished or wiped out completely after the Category 4 storm blew through the Keys on Sept. 10.

Local officials are particularly eager to have their general funds back to sustainable levels as the beginning of hurricane season fast approaches on June 1.

The money in question was paid upfront by the county and other local cities, towns and villages with cash from their respective reserve funds right after Irma made landfall in the Keys. It was used to pay for things like contractors, overtime for government workers and law enforcement from out of county that was brought in during the chaotic post-storm days and weeks.

“The Keys are so unique. This stuff has to keep moving because every six months we’re in another cycle and municipalities here don’t have large reserves,” said Chuck Lindsey, manager for the City of Marathon. “We’re going into hurricane season with depleted reserves.”

Monroe County, Marathon, the Village of Islamorada and other municipalities are waiting for the money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Grant Program. Those seeking reimbursement first submit an application to FEMA through an online portal. FEMA officials review the applications to make sure all the needed paperwork is in order.

Once that happens, the applications then go to the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM) for approval. After state approval, the applications go back to FEMA for a process called “obligation” — which means, “Yes, we’re going to pay you and all your paperwork is right,” said Marathon City Councilman Mark Senmartin.

FEMA then sends the money to the Department of Emergency Managment and that agency is responsible for distributing it to the governments that requested reimbursement.

The process is slow, painstaking and arduous, and only a fraction of the money Monroe County and Keys municipalities requested has returned to the island chain. Marathon, for example, which was one of the areas hit hardest by Irma, submitted around $28 million for reimbursement.

Of that, around $400,000 has been approved. That was for a project in which the city sent electricians and inspectors to homes to ensure they were safe enough for electric power to be restored without creating fire hazards, said Lindsey.

“How do we get every house inspected before the power company flips the switch,” Lindsey said. “From a life-safety standpoint, it made sense, but I don’t know if anyone had done it before.”

The Village of Islamorada applied for $6.5 million in reimbursements from FEMA, but hasn’t received “our first dime,” said Village Councilman Mike Forster.

“We keep submitting reimbursements, but they keep sending back revisions on the exact information they need, including, if you can believe, even the exact GPS numbers for a stop sign,” Forster said.

John Mills, a FEMA spokesman, acknowledged the process is in-depth, but he said it needs to be.

“As you know, this is a reimbursement process. The lack of proper documentation of completed work is usually the main reason for a delay,” Mills said. “Documentation of disaster-related expenses, documented costs incurred, and verification that work has been completed are required.”

On the state level, the reviews need to be thorough to avoid what FDEM communications director Alberto Moscoso called in an email Thursday, “future federal claw backs associated with later FEMA financial reviews.” He was referring to incidents like one reported this week in Politico where FEMA asked Collier County to pay back $7 million it received after Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“FDEM staff work with applicants to carefully and deliberately review submitted requests and ensure the presence of documentation required by previously agreed-upon scopes of work,” Moscoso said.

Monroe County submitted $17.4 million in expenses for reimbursement. Of that, FEMA has approved $3.3 million, which has been sent to Department of Emergency Management, said county spokeswoman Cammy Clark. But the state agency is still holding the money, Clark said.

The county had to take out a $40 million line of credit so it can cover Irma expenses as it waits for money it says is 100 percent reimbursable.

Monroe County officials estimate Hurricane Irma cost the Keys $93.3 million.

Moscoso said there are 46 reimbursement projects in the Keys associated with Irma. Of those, 42 are still awaiting “FEMA determination,” he said.

“The remaining four projects are undergoing final state review and will likely see disbursement in the near future,” Moscoso said.

FLKeysNews.com reporter Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.

David Goodhue: 305-923-9728