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$200 million in hurricane relief coming to Sarasota County

Written by on Monday, August 21, 2023

Over $200 million in federal funds is coming to Sarasota to fix the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Ian. The county has created a priority list, and now wants input from residents.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: August 18, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: More than $200 million, that’s a lot of money. And that’s what Sarasota County will get in federal funds to fix the aftermath left by Hurricane Ian last fall, particularly in the south of the county. To make sure we’re spending the money where it’s most needed, the county tried to find the biggest unmet needs and came up with a priority list. They picked an expert to lead a program they titled “Resilient SRQ,” and now Sarasota County wants your input. That of residents, that is.

Julie and Jono Miller, hosts of the “Our Changing Environment” show on WSLR interviewed Laurel Varnell, who is in charge of Resilient SRQ, and North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell, about the damage yet to be fixed and the windfall to come. Here’s a summary of what they had to say.

It’s been 11 months since Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on North Port, Englewood and Venice, but many repairs have yet to be made says North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell.

Debbie McDowell: We are, for all intents and purposes, 11 months post Hurricane Ian. And that sounds like a really, really long time. 11 months? Oh my gosh, recovery should be finished. Living here through Hurricane Charley, it takes years to recover.

The city is trying to get things back to normal, but the citizens are trying to get back to normal just as much. Many of them are fighting with insurance or fighting with FEMA or trying to pay the bills out of pocket, trying to get their roof repaired. Trying to get the fences up, trying to, you know, life is not back to normal for so many residents here in the city of North Port. The needs are everywhere you look. Holiday Park, that’s our mobile home park here in North Port, was destroyed and you could see the debris all around and into Charlotte County because it got blown across the street.

Host: Now the federal cavalry is riding to the rescue in the form of $201.5 million. Housing and Urban Development, or HUD for short, is the federal agency in charge of overseeing disaster recovery spending, most of which should be used for housing and infrastructure. Laurel Varnell has been appointed to manage the federal dollars that will soon be flowing into Sarasota County. She describes how it all came about.

Laurel Varnell: So, the county wrote a letter to the Secretary saying that we have this great unmet need. It was right after Hurricane Ian had hit. We explained what the damage was at preliminarily, we explained our ability and capacity to manage a grant of this size. And we sent that to HUD and we crossed our fingers, and then HUD decided to award Sarasota County directly, which is unusual. Generally, this grant is given at the state level, so it’s a little unusual for it to be awarded.

Host: In addition to Sarasota and the state of Florida, only Lee, Volusia and Orange Counties received direct HUD recovery funding for Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. In other words, Sarasota has a unique, probably one-time opportunity to determine how to spend a big chunk of money.

So what are we going to do with it? In a draft plan presented recently, the county’s proposing to spend essentially half on housing and the rest on a laundry list of things, most prominently fixing public infrastructure. The county proposes to put $101 million towards housing. That’s actually $40 million less than suggested in the first assessment by HUD. Within that, first and foremost, that’s $15 million to reimburse low and moderate income homeowners who have not been fully compensated by insurance or federal programs.

Varnell describes who could qualify.

LV: To use this funding source, there can’t be any other funding available. So if someone has already made those repairs, or they’ve received FEMA or SBA assistance, then they may not be eligible. So we’ll kind of have a whole process of, once we open applications for our housing, rehabilitation or housing reconstruction, we’ll accept the documentation from anyone who experienced damage from Hurricane Ian. And then we’ll be able to kind of go through and see if they meet the eligibility criteria.

We will have some income restrictions, as part of HUDs requirement is that we are primarily to benefit low to moderate income persons. So that’s going to be one of, right off the bat, that income is going to be, I think, one of the things that’s going to limit some of the people who may be eligible for this program.

Host: In the proposal, there are also $14 million dollars for a home rehabilitation and reconstruction program that’s mainly aimed at mobile home owners. Then there are $6.5 million to buy out homeowners in repeatedly flooded areas. Finally, there are $14 million for new affordable multifamily housing.

At a public hearing last week in Venice, Jon Thaxton, an affordable housing advocate on the payroll of the Sarasota Community Foundation, suggested to shift an additional $10 million from workforce training to that affordable housing construction pot.

Jon Thaxton: If you look at the data from the chamber, the EDC, the large employers, the private employers, the public employers, it is clearly by far affordable housing that is the number one need of the community, not to train workforce. Frankly, we’re training the employees now, but they’re leaving Sarasota because they cannot afford a place to live.

Host: You have until August 25 for feedback and input. To make suggestions, go to scgov.net/resilientsrq. There, you can fill out a form and you will find the link to the HUD website.

You can also email to resilientsrqcomments@scgov.net. In mid-September, the County Commission will vote on the proposal, which will then be submitted to HUD.

To listen to the full interview with McDowell and Varnell, go to wskr.org, click on “Archive” and look for the last edition of Our Changing Environment.


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