Feds to the rescue?

Written by on Friday, September 15, 2023

As hurricanes get more frequent and intense, FEMA and HUD are turning into ‘insurers’ of last resort.

By Sarah Malickson

Original Air Date: Sept. 15, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: As hurricanes are becoming more intense and frequent, federal dollars are playing an increasingly important role here for disaster relief and recovery. That’s not just the case for local governments, but even more so for individuals. WSLR News reporter Sarah Malickson is looking into how acronyms such as “FEMA” and “HUD” are creeping into the everyday vocabulary of insurance-challenged Sarasotans. 

Sarah Malickson: Well, hurricane season kicked off with a bang. Two weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis sought federal aid after Hurricane Idalia made landfall. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York during his time as Congressman, DeSantis voted against emergency funding. 

Like it or not, as insurance is becoming less and less affordable and reliable, federal disaster relief and recovery dollars play an increasingly important role in stormy Florida.

Kay Ryan lives in a double-wide manufactured home in Englewood’s Alameda Isles trailer park. At a recent Sarasota County Commission meeting that discussed how to spend federal disaster recovery grants, she talked about how much she hates being scolded by local politicians for going without appropriate insurance coverage, after her horrid experience with Hurricane Ian.

Kay Ryan: We had a fair amount of damage to our home. And in addition, my husband was in hospice care and later died. The only thing that I could get insurance-wise was Tower Hill. They’ve now become a self-pooled kind of insurance company. And after I paid my premium, then they decided you had to sign a [power of attorney] to some unknown entity. So I think we really need to address the needs of people who have no insurance.

S.M.: Apparently heeding the call from Sarasotans like Ryan, Sarasota County has quietly accepted between $300 million and $400 million in federal funding since Joe Biden assumed the presidency. That estimate excludes FEMA funding for public infrastructure repairs after Hurricane Ian, which the county’s accountants have yet to figure into this sum. To put it in perspective: That amounts to more than 20 percent of the county’s annual operating budget – and it doesn’t even include direct FEMA payments to individuals. 

The quiet surrounding this large amounts of federal funding is mostly due to politics. The Republicans in the Florida delegation – like Reps. Greg Steube and Vern Buchanan – have consistently voted against Biden administration programs such as the American Rescue Act, the Infrastructure Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. 

However, the county did accept American Rescue Act stimulus funds during the pandemic, to the tune of $100 million.

So, how important is federal disaster aid for the county in terms of Hurricane relief? A spreadsheet provided by Sarasota County in response to a public records request for federal grants received by the county since January 2021 suggests that most of the federal funding sought and collected is disaster-related. The biggest share, about $201 million, comes from a HUD block grant for post-disaster recovery. The county will use this money to provide for unmet needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. 

I asked Sarasota County’s Chief Emergency Officer, Scott Montgomery, about the importance of FEMA funding. Montgomery explained that FEMA funding can be divided into two major categories: individual assistance and public assistance. Individual assistance covers the costs for citizens seeking home repairs, car repairs, or even funeral services, and these amounts are not included in the county’s accounting post-storm.


Scott Montgomery: Normally with FEMA, on the individual assistance side they put a cap on the amount of money a single individual can get. It really depends on the magnitude of the events and the damage. So, say, I use my car as my major source of income and it received $5,000 worth of damage. When I submit a claim to FEMA under individual assistance, they may pay the whole $5,000 or part of that.

S.M.: Public assistance, which is included, covers the cost of road repairs or beach repairs, facilitated by the government. After a disaster, the local government must first declare a major disaster to receive funding. The county then carries out needed repairs, makes payments upfront, and then submits a request to FEMA, which typically reimburses about 75%. This is the typical order of operations,  But after Hurricane Ian, things looked a little different. 

Montgomery: The first 30 days were actually reimbursed at 100%. Whatever we had to do – debris pick up, protective measures, cleanup. So those first 30 days was actually all reimbursed at 100%. However, President Biden actually came in and extended that 30 days. So we actually had 60 days from this Sept. 21, 2022, the date of that Ian made landfall. Whatever expenses we incurred government-wise, that was at 100%.

Meanwhile, HUD grants have a different structure. Kay Ryan – the trailer owner in Englewood – knows how important FEMA was for her and her neighbors. She has a clear idea how incoming HUD dollars would be best spent.

Ryan: FEMA helped me greatly. And I hope that a great deal of that can be moved to to folks who are very, very needy and and deserve the attention that they should get.

S.M.: This has been Sarah Malickson, reporting for WSLR News.


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