Florida Keys

Hurricane debris costs inflated by lack of oversight, feds say

Florida Keys canal filled with storm debris months after Hurricane Irma

Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.
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Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.

After Hurricane Irma devastated much of Florida and Georgia last September, federal, state and local officials provided little to no oversight of contractors tasked with debris removal, leaving a wide open door to fraud, according to a newly released federal report.

Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses much of the cost of state and local disaster cleanup, the report states the lack of oversight resulted in the federal government paying millions of dollars for cleanup work that often was never completed.

“Without adequate guidance and oversight of debris removal by FEMA, state officials and sub-recipients, there is increased risk of fraud, waste, and abuse at great cost to the taxpayers,” according to a Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report released Tuesday.

A crane adds to an ever-growing pile of vegetative debris from Hurricane Irma at a Key Largo site, one of several throughout the Florida Keys in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which struck the Keys on Sept. 10, 2017. David Goodhue dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

Investigators visited several debris drop-off sites throughout Florida, although the report did not specify which county the sites were located. They found they were being monitored mostly by contracted employees who were not properly checking truck loads, but approving the haulers for payment based on cubic yards of debris they supposedly collected, according to the OIG report.

“We observed a monitor who provided haulers load calls of 90 to 95 percent volume of the certified truck capacity, even though the trucks were not that full,” the report states. “Instead, the trucks contained large stumps that did not take up 90 and 95 percent of the truck’s available space.”

Prior to 2016, FEMA was required to “take an active role in validating truck and trailer capacity certifications, evaluating operational efficiency, and overseeing documentation requirements.”

But in January 2016, the agency eliminated federal and state debris removal monitoring requirements, according to the Inspector General’s report. Local governments are now responsible for monitoring the process and they often hire monitoring firms.

FEMA officials could not immediately be reached for comment on why that requirement was removed. A spokesman with the Homeland Security OIG did not return a call for comment.

Irma was one of the costliest hurricanes in recent U.S. history. FEMA damage estimates for Florida and Georgia exceed $4.2 billion, according to the OIG report, and about 36 percent of that amount is debris removal operations, which the agency estimates to be around $1.5 billion.

But, according to the OIG report, that number could have been significantly lower if proper monitoring practices were in place after the storm.

“Inadequate monitoring poses risks of overstated debris removal activity and questionable costs for reimbursement,” the report’s authors state. “Following Hurricane Irma, FEMA lacked oversight of the debris removal process in Florida.”

In an attachment to the report, FEMA issued statements that it agreed with the OIG’s assessment and will begin policies to monitor disaster debris removal by August 2019.

“FEMA’s Recovery Directorate recognizes the importance of producing clear debris monitoring guidelines so that applicants can properly implement and manage debris monitoring activities,” the agency stated.

The report comes amid a blame game between Florida Keys officials and the Gov. Rick Scott administration about who authorized state-paid contractors to come into Monroe County days after the Sept. 10, 2017, Category 4 storm hit.

County officials publicly said they never asked the state to send Florida Department of Transportation contractors to clear the piles of storm debris from county roads. But, a Sept. 28, 2017, email obtained by the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com written by County Administrator Roman Gastesi to FDOT Secretary Mike Dew specifically asks FDOT for help in clearing county roads of debris because “our debris removal contractor is struggling with cleaning up the Florida Keys.” .

The county contractor, AshBritt Environmental, filed a lawsuit in Monroe County Circuit Court against the county and FDOT for breach of contract, arguing the only reason it was having difficulties doing its job was because the FDOT contractors were poaching trucks and subcontractors since they were able to pay much more than AshBritt.

The Scott administration put out last-minute requests for proposals right as Irma hit, and two companies, Munilla Construction Management and Community Asphalt, won the bids. Since Florida was under a federal disaster declaration, and trucks, equipment and personnel were scarce because Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana just days before, state governments were offering contracts at rates much higher than usual.

Meanwhile, county contractors like AshBritt could not renegotiate their rates, making it almost impossible to compete with FDOT contractors for workers. The FDOT contracts also cost the federal government tens of millions of dollars more in reimbursement payments to the state than would have been paid if Monroe stuck with AshBritt.

The situation led Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to ask acting Homeland Security Inspector General John V. Kelly to audit the contracts awarded by Scott. Kelly agreed to the request late last month.

The Oct. 2 report is not connected with that audit, but Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday that it “confirms many of my concerns with how debris removal was handled after Irma.”

“Timely debris removal is essential to getting communities back to normal and keeping people safe after a hurricane, but it must be done with oversight and in a cost-effective way,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement to the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com. “I am thankful for, and very eager to see the final, detailed Inspector General audits on these issues, especially as it concerns the questionable cleanup contracts in Monroe County.”

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