U.S. House panel in South Fla. hears complaints about Hurricane Ian recovery problems

By: - August 12, 2023 12:00 pm

Boats sit grounded in a woodland area and along the side of the road after being pushed by rising water from Hurricane Ian near Fort Myers Beach on Sept. 29, 2022, in San Carlos Island. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain to the area causing severe damage. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Chauncey Goss grew up on Sanibel Island and still lived there last Sept. 28, when Hurricane Ian showed up. It forced him to drive his family from their home with whatever they could carry in their car. He’s grateful they survived, he told a congressional panel in Fort Myers on Thursday.

Then came another ordeal, he said: navigating the federal disaster relief bureaucracy. The family applied for shelter in a motel and were directed to Alabama and then Brooksville, hours away from Southwest Florida. They were approved for a travel trailer to live in on their property in early December but were still waiting in late March for it to arrive.

Goss couldn’t get through on the phone to the federal bureaucracies, and officials on the ground weren’t always helpful — for example, demanding pdfs of key documents under post-disaster conditions but refusing to let him use their scanner. He still hasn’t been able to arrange a Small Business Administration disaster loan.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful at all, because I’m not,” Goss testified before the House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, which met Thursday in Fort Myers.

Still: “The senior leadership at FEMA and SBA, they need to be doing more than just putting boots on the ground here,” Goss said. “They need to put brains on the ground. They’ve got to put some people who can make some decisions so that they’re not just ticket takers sitting in an office somewhere saying, ‘I’m logging some hours.’”

Goss is a politically connected businessman who advises clients on federal budget matters and chairs the South Florida Water Management District. He’s the son of former Congressman and CIA director Porter Goss. He testified alongside representatives of key federal disaster-relief agencies and local officials from Lee County.

Bureaucratic problems

Byron Donalds, a Republican who represents the area in Congress and participated in the hearing, hears stories like that a lot, he said. Constituents complain that federal agencies reject paperwork containing minor errors, forcing applicants to refile in a post-disaster atmosphere in which key documents may have been lost or destroyed.

Republican Congressman Byron Donalds participates in an oversight hearing into the Hurricane Ian response held in Fort Myers on Aug. 10, 2023. (Screenshot/CSPAN)

“What needs to happen to stop that from occurring? Because when people are in disaster-recovery mode, they don’t have to check every dot,” Donalds said at one point.

Since Ian hit last year, the federal government has spent more than $5 billion on Ian recovery, including $896 million through FEMA to households and $504 million for emergency response; the SBA has provided $1.47 billion in disaster loans; the National Flood Insurance Program has paid $2.2 billion in claims to Hurricane Ian survivors, according to a government fact sheet.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman estimated that the county lost 5,000 homes and 284 businesses with another 910 businesses suffering major damage, for an overall economic loss of $112 billion. The county lost every traffic signal, which can’t be fixed with federal dollars until the agencies inspect them.

Hamman praised the federal agencies for being quick to show up with disaster assistance teams and recovery centers, but complained they were slow to provide enough communication resources, inspectors, and travel trailers, and that FEMA clashed with local officials on occasion. SBA and HUD were slow to dispense money, he added.

“There were many moments across many different agencies where the regulatory hurdles, miscommunication, and burdensome administrative requirements were too big and too rigid to meet the community’s needs. What was needed at that time was urgency and flexibility,” Hamman said.

Process vs. progress

Agencies lagged on removing 11 million cubic yards of debris, too, Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said, explaining how dispiriting it was for home and business owners to confront the wreckage of their lives every day. Ultimately, the state helped by authorizing the local governments to begin removing it pending federal approval, he added.

“All of the federal agencies have great processes, but it prevents them at times from fulfilling their purpose,” Anderson said.

“And while their process is designed to help those who have been displaced from their homes, lost their loved ones, lost their business, whatever it might be, it often prevents them from fulfilling that purpose. And who is stuck there are those who are suffering losses.”

FEMA placed 1,335 travel trailers in the region, including 111 on Lee County’s barrier islands, but has been retiring them as the recovery progresses and people move into restored housing or replacement shelter. Sixteen trailers are left on the islands at this point, Thomas McCool, FEMA’s coordinator for Ian relief, said.

An area that once contained a building is shown swept clear following Hurricane Ian on Oct. 3, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

He acknowledged it took 45 days between approval of mobile housing for each resident and the trailers’ arrival, but said transitional shelter was available in hotels, even if spread across three states.

Donalds wanted to know why it takes so long to move trailers into place. McCool replied that his agency isn’t allowed to move them into special flood hazard zones — like the barrier islands, for example — in the interest of resident’s safety and environmental protection.

However, “if there is no practicable solution, we are allowed to put, after intense coordination with local building officials and flood-plain managers in each community, travel trailers or manufactured housing in special flood hazard areas,” McCool said. 533 landed in flood zones, he added.

‘Keep people safe’

“I don’t think we could have worked any faster. The bottom line is we have to keep people safe. We don’t want to put people at risk. And so, we did a very deliberate flood-risk analysis in every county that was affected,” McCool said.

Donalds also noted a considerable lag between approval of SBA loans the money’s arrival in applicant’s pockets.

The system is modeled on regular bank construction loans, doled out depending on submission of documents including building permits and insurance paperwork, said Fransisco Sánchez Jr., assistant administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience. His agency has been waiving those requirements, however, he added.

North Carolina Republican Chuck Edwards pointed to confusion over claims for duplicate benefits, which federal law doesn’t allow — say, drawing a $5,000 FEMA grant and also a $50,000 SBA loan.

Sánchez conceded the point. “Our goal is to put as much capital on the ground, in the hands of the disaster providers,” he said. Clarifying that the situation doesn’t constitute double-dipping would be “the single greatest thing that Congress could do right now.”

As for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that agency will work with local officials in designating projects for community development block grants to repair infrastructure, Marion McFadden, principal deputy assistant secretary for Community Planning and Development, said. Still, it can take a year and a half for the money to flow following a disaster. The agency is looking for ways to speed that up, she said.

Statutory authority

Another problem with the block grants program is that it lacks specific statutory authority or a guaranteed annual appropriation. In January, Congress gave the program nearly $100 billion, McFadden said. Permanent authorization would “remove uncertainty about what resources will be available to allow communities to better plan recovery activities,” she added.

By law, 70% of the block grants have to benefit low- and middle-income residents, she said, but the agency has granted waivers for infrastructure repairs that benefit everyone.

Despite the criticism, members of the subcommittee didn’t hector the federal officials, acknowledging the scale of the disaster and the response and Congress’ own share in creating these problems.

“It’s Congress that’s as much responsible for any flaws in disaster relief as any agency, for sure,” Arizona Republican Andy Biggs said. He noted that key disaster funding will run out before the end of the year, although President Joe Biden called Thursday for $12 billion in additional resources.

Chairman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, said he expects additional disaster funding to hit the House floor in September or October.

“We need to get better, but Congress does play a role in that,” Sessions said.


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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.