FEMA’s $26M in aid to Tropical Storm Fay victims just a start, local officials say

Nov 12, 2008

Orlando Sentinel–November 12, 2008

Rachael Jackson

Sentinel Staff Writer

The federal government has designated more than $26 million for Floridians affected by Tropical Storm Fay, according to numbers released Tuesday, but relief and mitigation funding from the August storm is far from complete.

About 19,000 flooding victims met Monday’s deadline to apply for low-interest loans and individual assistance grants — funds that can go toward repairs, rent and possessions that were destroyed during the storm. More than half are expected to get some kind of relief.

Some Central Florida applicants said the process went smoothly, but DeBary homeowner Jessica Urban was left frustrated.

During the storm, which caused floods across the state and dumped 22 inches of rain on DeBary, her foundation crumbled away, making her home unsafe for her and her 9-year-old daughter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially denied her claim for assistance, but she appealed and this week learned she would receive about $20,000 for repairs.

“That’s great,” she said. “But the house is just completely ruined. I’m still paying my mortgage every month, and $20,000 isn’t going to pay off my mortgage.”

Playing a waiting game

While individual applications are typically processed in several weeks, local governments will likely be waiting much longer to be reimbursed for expenses such as pumps, pipes and labor to control flooding. DeBary spent $4 million of its $5 million reserve responding to Tropical Storm Fay, leaving the city in a precarious position if there is another natural disaster. FEMA typically reimburses 75 percent of local expenses.

In addition to the $26 million for individuals, FEMA has appropriated $3 million to help reimburse local governments across the state. FEMA spokesman Pete Garcia acknowledged that was a fraction of the total that will be needed statewide but could not say when more would be appropriated.

After every major disaster, FEMA also allocates money for projects to prevent future problems. Local officials are waiting to hear how much more funding they would receive for these efforts. Mitigation committees in each county prioritize their projects and fund the most important ones when that money is released through the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

“Until we know how much money is going to be coming to us, it makes it hard to prioritize,” said Pat White, a coordinator for Volusia County Emergency Management and a member of that county’s mitigation committee. DeBary plans to submit a handful of projects, including a home-buyout package that would level 14 flood-prone properties. White predicts she’ll get applications for about 15 projects related to Fay. That will come on top of a wish list of about 200 other projects — ranging from infrastructure to siren systems — that still await funding. Many are left over from the 2004 storms.

‘Hostage by the process’

On Tuesday, Pamela Keil, an external-affairs officer for the state Division of Emergency Management, said the dollar amount was still being calculated and that she did not know when it would be released. Until then, mitigation efforts and some residents are in limbo.

“We are somewhat held hostage by the process,” said flooded homeowner Dan Disrud, who is on DeBary’s buyout list. “Everybody’s gone through all the hoops and we’re just awaiting the next step.”