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Thirteen months ago, Hurricane Irma whacked the Florida Keys. For many, it has been a struggle to rebuild and get back to some semblance of normalcy. But the “New Normal” is a place where a lot of things don’t go according to plan.

Irma plowed through our islands as a Category 4 hurricane, leaving destruction of homes, businesses, and lives in its wake. The Lower and Middle Keys were ground zero; workforce housing in Marathon and the Lower Keys was particularly hard hit. As Irma was departing the Keys, the president authorized 100 percent reimbursement for the first 30 days of cleanup; Congress approved the funding package immediately. This was designed to get money into the affected areas immediately to facilitate the beginning stages of recovery.

Sadly, Florida’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) didn’t get the memo on how its mission is one of assisting local governments in the aftermath of a disaster. DEM has inserted itself into the post-Irma FEMA reimbursement process — with disastrous results. 

After Hurricane Wilma in 2006, the State of Florida helped facilitate the disposition of federal reimbursement funds. This year, however, instead of assisting local governments, DEM has become a bureaucratic obstacle to getting those necessary FEMA dollars. 

When Marathon officials dared to speak up about the lengthy process and ask questions about the delays, DEM put out an extremely misleading press release* that claimed, “Over the last decade, however, the City of Marathon’s de-obligation rate stands at 53 percent. For Hurricane Wilma, which is the storm most similar to last year’s Irma, Marathon experienced a 60 percent rate of de-obligation — more than double the statewide average. This means that more than half of the City of Marathon’s project reimbursements failed federal review, resulting in claw backs of federal funds years after Wilma made landfall.”

This is a lie.

For the record, preliminary damage estimates often exceed actual damage costs. Marathon never put in for reimbursement all the costs put forth in the preliminary estimates, and therefore never had 60 percent of its FEMA funds from Wilma de-obligated. I was mayor during Wilma and its immediate aftermath, and I have a little knowledge of what happened then. Let me state this emphatically: there were no big checks written back to FEMA from Marathon, or on Marathon’s behalf. (Imagine the news coverage if there had been!) 

This press release was put out back in April; we still haven’t seen a dime in FEMA funds. I’m not sure why DEM felt the need to tell blatant lies about the City of Marathon; I am very concerned, however, about the ongoing delays in the process that are the fault of DEM. While the money is tied up with FEMA, DEM has done precious little to assist local governments access those funds.

I will be watching very closely to see how the coastal counties in North Florida, and the City of Tallahassee are reimbursed following the hard blow of Hurricane Michael. It also makes one wonder why Gov. Rick Scott visited the Keys three times immediately before and after Irma, but visited Puerto Rico eight times. 

Our two senators, by contrast, have been amazing and helpful. Sen. Marco Rubio visited several times and helped the county and cities secure funding for the canal cleanup that has been under way for the past several weeks. And Sen. Bill Nelson has also been there for us. In addition to visiting the Keys, he had our city manager testify at a Senate committee hearing concerning the FEMA funding process and how it has affected disaster preparedness for future storm seasons.

Blatant government mismanagement of critical resources — and apathy when assisting local governments recovering from a disaster — are not things to be ignored or glossed over. And these things are most certainly not behavior to be rewarded. Things to think about as we head to the polls this November…

* www.floridadisaster.org/news-media/news/fdem-to-join-irma-recovery-roundtable-with-fema-keys-officials/

Catch John Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Saturdays at the Key Colony Inn, and Sunday at Havana Jack’s. www.johnbartus.com

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