Local, state, fed officials try to resolve storm issues, costs

May 20, 2008

The News-Journal--May 20, 2008

Environment Writer

DELAND — Dozens of Central Florida, state and federal officials gathered here Monday at the request of U.S. Rep. John Mica to ensure open lines of communication to the federal government before the next disaster.

Mica, R-Winter Park, wanted to try to resolve old issues and make sure everyone knows who’s in charge if a hurricane happens to strike the state this summer. But neither of those promises to be very simple.

The ranking member of the House committee that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mica had a laundry list of concerns he and local governments want to see addressed.

FEMA still owes millions of dollars in reimbursements to local governments for debris cleanup from the hurricanes of 2004, including $700,000 owed to Volusia County.

The congressman challenged the assorted FEMA folks at the meeting to try to resolve all outstanding claims by Sept. 30.

Officials from Volusia County, DeBary, Crescent City and elsewhere talked about the difficulty of meeting federal requirements for documentation and paperwork. Volusia, for example, was recently asked to produce paper tickets from the debris pickup in 2004.

That’s happened all over the state, said Craig Fugate, Florida’s emergency management director.

“We’re using bar codes and scanners,” Fugate said. “We’re in the 21st century and they want us to go back to carbon copies and mimeographs.”

Other claims also await action. DeBary has appealed a $40,000 claim FEMA denied to repay the city for repairs made to a private road so people could get in and out of their homes. Flagler County and Ormond Beach are waiting to see if FEMA will reimburse them for collecting debris in gated communities. If the agency agrees to cover those expenses, Volusia County hopes to collect another $600,000 in claims that were originally denied.

The officials described complicated circumstances where they’ve worked with three or more groups of federal officials who all ask to see the same things to review, close and audit the claims.

Mica just shook his head. The agency has been under pressure from Congress because of problems elsewhere with “people ripping off the system,” he said. But that concern about fraud and waste has led to an “atrocious amount of documentation.”

The assorted officials agreed the situation improved a lot between 2004 and the tornadoes that struck DeLand in December 2006 and February 2007.

FEMA’s regional administrator Phil May said the agency has instituted debris training and has encouraged communities to have their debris contracts in place before an event.

Mica and Fugate also want the federal government to designate one person to be able to make decisions and represent the president after a disaster. Since the Department of Homeland Security “usurped” FEMA, Mica said, that has been difficult.

FEMA has designated one person as federal coordinator for Florida but it appears Homeland Security also has asked a second person to play a similar role.

It’s very difficult to deal with two or more federal officials who all say they’re in charge, Fugate said.

Meanwhile, Florida governments are waiting to see if the state will get a waiver from new federal requirements for upgrading and building emergency shelters. Fugate said new rules require buildings to be safe during an F5 tornado, an event that far exceeds the force and destruction of a Category 5 hurricane.

That’s not cost effective for a state that usually gets only minimal tornadoes, he said.

New shelters can be built to the new rules, albeit much more expensively, Fugate said, but the state wants relief from the rules so it can qualify for federal money to upgrade existing shelters.Mica also voiced concern about the lack of a hurricane-rated shelter in south Putnam county, just over the Volusia County line. He said U.S. Highway 17 is marked as an evacuation route, but there’s nowhere for anyone to find safe shelter if needed.