Cities and counties across Florida are trying to return to normal, or something close to it, after Hurricane Irma. All the while, frustration is mounting in places impacted by Hurricane Matthew that are still waiting over a year later for payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for actual costs incurred by local governments from that storm.
For St. Johns County, out-of-pocket expenses such as those for debris removal, emergency road and infrastructure repair as well as overtime for emergency personnel have yet to be reimbursed.
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns told The Record on Friday he’s all at once appreciative of and disappointed with the state’s efforts to secure the money. Names and numbers that have been provided to him for people who supposedly call the shots and write the checks seem to inevitably lead to someone else or nowhere altogether.
Johns said Sen. Marco Rubio’s office called him Wednesday and that he met in person with some representatives from that office by Thursday afternoon in order to discuss the delays. He said he walked out with assurances, but no money.
He said he was hoping for even “a dollar bill that says ‘From FEMA, with love,’” or “a big, giant check — a physical check — with numbers and zeros on it.”
Johns said the state, at the end of the day, says it doesn’t have the authority and doesn’t know the people who do. He said as of Thursday no one could tell him how many weeks or months it will take to see the first dollar originating from FEMA.
“It’s a real cash flow concern to me,” he said. “It was challenging to get the budget together not knowing what money will be available and, meanwhile, I don’t know we’re not going to get another hurricane this year. We’re not done yet.”
Michael Ryan, spokesman for the county, told The Record on Friday the county is looking at a $53.4 million price tag for Matthew, not including sand and dune restoration or renourishment. That figure comes from project submissions either already on FEMA’s desk or on its way.
He said the county is expecting at least $46.7 million will be reimbursed between FEMA and the state, eventually.
As for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated sand loss, Ryan said restoring any of that sand will probably be a whole process in and of itself.
“We’re following every path possible to get funding for sand,” he said. “Replacing a beach walkover is fairly simple, but, when you talk about sand, it’s so much less tangible.”
When asked whether FEMA has authorized anything the county has submitted yet, Ryan said, “The short answer is yes, but the answer is no.”
“They haven’t authorized anything,” he continued, although adding the county has had discussions with FEMA in which its been made clear what percentages can be expected for certain projects.
“It’s spelled out,” Ryan said. “We know we’re going to get that money back. It’s real black and white.”
Still, he said the county is expecting a long, drawn-out process and that there will likely be some projects where FEMA will “nitpick” certain expenses and the county will have to justify those expenses on a case-by-case basis.
Ryan said there’s three basic stages of the reimbursement process: project development, project management and closeout. He said the county is only just wrapping up the project development stage, in which all projects potentially eligible for reimbursement are identified and submitted to FEMA for approval.
He said the frustration among commissioners and staff likely stems from the fact the county has yet to receive so much as $1 to make up for real and necessary expenses the county incurred more than a year ago to prepare for and begin recovery from the storm. These projects and efforts have long been completed, supposedly to FEMA’s standards and requirements.
The next stage, project management, is really more for projects the county has yet to undertake. For example, Ryan said a lot of beach walkovers blown or washed away by Matthew are still in need of repair or replacement. Canals in Treasure Beach where existing silting was exacerbated by the storm is still to be dredged.
Then comes close-out, at which point work performed to FEMA’s standards and requirements is reimbursed.
Ryan said the county is sympathetic to the reality that the federal agency is dealing with issues across Florida and in Puerto Rico due to Irma, as well as in Texas due to Hurricane Harvey.
“We’re dealing with one significant storm and another one a year later,” he said. “They’re dealing with several all at the same time and spread out over multiple geographic areas.”
Although Ryan said FEMA has yet to indicate when the county might see payments for Matthew start to come in, he said he believed a “turning point” in the process should be coming soon.
Johns, referring to his efforts to “unjam the logjam,” seemed a little less optimistic.
“It’s disappointing because this is what stereotypes about government are built on,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s an earned reputation.”
Johns said he’s been promised weekly updates by state officials but that all he wants is restoration of what the county had before the storm, using its own residents’ tax dollars coming back to it.
“Bottom line is it was a pleasant meeting, but they didn’t bring a check,” he said.
County staff on Tuesday will provide commissioners an update on recovery efforts related to Matthew and Irma.