St. Lucie gets $2.4 million FEMA reimbursement from 2004 hurricanes

Dec 19, 2008

Treasure Coast Palm--December 19, 2008

By Susan Burgess

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – St. Lucie County and Port St. Lucie are $2.4 million richer than they were two weeks ago.

Just in time for the holidays, reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Port St. Lucie last week and St. Lucie County this week for debris cleanup on privately owned roads in gated communities after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne tore them apart in 2004.

Fort Pierce has received its money for debris pickup on public property from FEMA, but the city is still working on its plan to create islands in the Indian River to serve as breakwaters for the city marina. Reimbursement won’t come until the marina breakwater is finished.

“There were places where the debris was piled 10 feet high,” Fort Pierce Risk Manager Le Thomas said.

The county and Port St. Lucie have been trying since the 2004 hurricanes to persuade FEMA to pay for debris picked up in gated communities.

Meanwhile, Martin County received its $3.4 million in October. Martin County’s FEMA money became a hot topic because U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens, admitted to an extramarital affair with a Martin County employee he was working with to get the money. Because St. Lucie County applied to FEMA first, St. Lucie officials were upset.

The county documented every load hauled from a gated community, Anderson said.

“FEMA argued that they should pay for their own or have hauled the debris to a public road,” County Administrator Doug Anderson said, “but that was just impossible. We took the position that these people already pay property taxes like everybody else, and on top of that they pay their associations for road maintenance, so they actually pay more than anybody else for their roads. And our inclination was to help them.”

The county buttressed its arguments to FEMA with letters from the fire chief, who wrote to FEMA to say the debris was a fire hazard, and the head of the public works department, who wrote to say the debris was blocking water drainage because the swales were full, Anderson said.

The county now has $1.7 million of the $2.2 million FEMA owes for the debris removal in gated communities, Anderson said. The rest of the money should arrive when FEMA completes one more audit of the figures.

The money from the 2004 hurricanes will be used to pay for expenses because of flooding from Tropical Storm Fay, which county officials are hoping will be reimbursed by FEMA.

“It’s a never ending cycle,” Anderson said.

The county has just finished replacing its civic center, destroyed by the hurricanes in 2004, with the new $14.7 million Havert L. Fenn Center which will serve as an emergency shelter for people with special needs and a community center for events. FEMA is expected to reimburse $9.8 million of that, with the rest of the funding coming from several sources.

Port St. Lucie received $719,881 via wire transfer from FEMA on Dec. 9 for debris pickup in 2004 from gated communities, said Port St. Lucie Finance Department Accountant Mike Florio. The city is still awaiting $23,000 that FEMA incorrectly deducted, thinking that work at the Ravenswood Center was covered by insurance.

“We’ve pretty much closed out the books on the 2004 hurricane money except for that $23,000,” Florio said.

Bureaucratic red tape has delayed Fort Pierce’s efforts to design a breakwater for the city marina, Risk Manager Le Thomas said. But once the project is completed, the city hopes to recoup $9.6 million of the cost from FEMA.