Miami-Dade County

FEMA approves $119 million in storm aid to Miami-Dade for 2017’s Irma cleanup

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.

Miami-Dade finally got some good news in the waiting game for federal storm aid: the Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week it approved $119 million to cover most of the county’s bills for debris removal from 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

Washington reimburses local governments for about 75 percent of the tab of cleaning up after a storm, with states typically sending extra dollars, too. Municipal administrators across South Florida have complained of delayed FEMA reimbursements for Irma, pointing the finger at bottlenecks in Washington and Tallahassee, which administers the federal aid.

For Florida’s largest local government, the FEMA approval is a significant step. “This is the first large approval that comes down the pipe,” said Ed Marquez, the county’s chief financial officer.

Florida still needs to approve disbursement of the money, but Marquez said he expected that to be finished within weeks. On Friday, the Twitter account of Gov. Ron DeSantis posted a message saying the state’s emergency-management arm would disburse “the funds as soon as possible.” Helen Aguirre Ferré, a DeSantis spokeswoman, said the administration also would quickly approve the state portion of the reimbursement, bringing the total to about $150 million.

While the county has enough cash in its operating accounts to carry the estimated $180 million total debris-removal costs for Irma, Marquez said he wasn’t sure Miami-Dade could do that again for another major storm.

“We’re getting into hurricane season,” he said. “This is good news.”

Some smaller governments in Miami-Dade had to borrow money to cover bills for private debris contractors while awaiting FEMA reimbursements from Irma. FEMA has been announcing similar approvals in recent weeks for local governments, too. On May 10, FEMA announced approval of the $1.6 million for El Portal, which borrowed $1.2 million to cover its cleanup costs while waiting for federal dollars.

FEMA’s Friday news releases on the Miami-Dade relief came two days after one of the county’s representatives in Congress, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, pressed FEMA deputy administrator Daniel Kaniewski during an oversight hearing on why requests from South Florida hadn’t been approved.

“Can you please explain to us what is taking so long?” she asked during the May 22 hearing of the House subcommittee that oversees emergency management. Kaniewski said he would get back to her.