With dangerous Category 5 Hurricane Irma forecast to move over Florida this weekend, local officials are concerned the potentially catastrophic storm could spell financial disaster for local governments who have yet to receive state and federal reimbursements for Hurricane Matthew cleanup.

They’ve wrangled with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Florida Division of Emergency Management for 11 months trying to collect tens of millions owed for debris cleanup after Hurricane Matthew. Most, if not all, haven’t received any money yet. Local governments in Volusia and Flagler counties are owed more than $35 million.

After Hurricane Matthew struck on Oct. 7, governments tapped reserves or borrowed money to pay the cost of cleaning up debris. Last week local governments learned payment for some of those claims will take a back seat to the disaster response for Hurricane Harvey.

“We can’t afford to respond to another storm,” said Jim Dinneen, county manager for Volusia County, owed $20 million by FEMA and the state.

Without the reimbursements, the local governments aren't sure where the money will come from to recover from Irma's impacts.  

“It will be over a year before I receive my first FEMA dollar,” said Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey. “God help the folks in Houston, if they experience the type of processing we’ve experienced.”

12-year-old appeals

For local governments, the complex paperwork and process required to get reimbursement for the cleanup of debris and other public services that take place after a hurricane is sometimes referred to as the disaster after the disaster.

City and county officials said they’ve dealt with numerous FEMA teams, who cycle in and require them to provide the same information and paperwork they’ve already provided to a previous team.

On top of these frustrations, an unidentified employee at the Florida Division of Emergency Management missed a federal deadline for returning a stack of 50 appeals to FEMA for its reimbursement decisions regarding local and state government claims. The state is responsible for reviewing appeals when local governments take issue with a FEMA denial for payment. Appeals are required to be sent to FEMA within 60 days.

Twenty-six of the 50 appeals were for other local governments, and dated as far back as 2004-2005, while the others were in-house state agency appeals, said Alberto Moscoso, spokesman for the Division of Emergency Management.

Only one of those — Brevard County’s — was for Hurricane Matthew.

The employee who was “directly responsible” was dismissed, said Moscoso, but has not been identified.

“We as an agency are responsible for those 26 general appeals not getting to FEMA,” said Moscoso. “That’s our fault. We are working closely with FEMA to work toward having those appeals appropriately considered.”

Volusia County did not have any appeals pending. Flagler County had filed an appeal for Matthew, but it was not among the appeals left sitting on the desk, said Moscoso. Flagler is appealing FEMA’s decision not to reimburse the county for picking up debris on private roads.

In Brevard County, Kimberly Prosser, emergency management director, said the county commission on Thursday is going to explore its options for dealing with the missed appeal for $391,000. Those options include contacting their legislators, contacting the governor’s office and “obviously strengthening our debris removal ordinance.”

Last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson sent a letter to FEMA on behalf of his constituents:

“FEMA should not penalize local governments for the state of Florida’s failure to submit the appeal,” Nelson wrote. “I strongly urge you to extend the appeal deadline to ensure recovering communities in Florida are given their due process to receive federal aid.

But the appeals, some of which date back to the 2005 hurricanes, illustrate a larger problem, officials said.

The fact that there were outstanding appeals dating to 2005 didn’t surprise Dineeen. It was roughly a decade before the county finally collected all of the reimbursements after the 2004 hurricanes, he said.

Reorganizing DEM

Moscoso agreed the backlog illustrates a problem the department has been working to address. In a reorganization earlier this year, several longtime employees in the recovery division left the agency.

“The staff change was needed and it has improved the situation at DEM and the state’s capabilities overall,” Moscoso said.

Even after that reorganization, local government officials still find fault with the process used by state and federal agencies.

They say they've also seen huge turnover in the representatives assigned to work with them and that state claims managers are responsible for many, many governments and claims. They describe a disaster reimbursement request process akin to undergoing a tax audit with the Internal Revenue Service.

“Everybody understands there’s a process” Coffey said. But, “it seems like people have forgotten at FEMA or the state level how to process a disaster.”

Cities and counties hire FEMA-approved contractors for cleanup, and monitors to observe the debris contractors. Those claim forms are reviewed by the state and sent to FEMA, which reviews them and sends the money to the state for distribution to the counties.

Each step of the process is reviewed by FEMA personnel and local officials said they’ve seen a high turnover in FEMA personnel.

Cities across Volusia County met with Nelson in August to discuss the widespread problems they said they had experienced with the FEMA response and the lack of reimbursement to date. Flagler County and other counties also cite similar experiences.

In a conference call with the state and The News-Journal, FEMA and the state defended the layers of checks and rechecks, saying it’s designed to prevent fraud, a huge problem FEMA was taken to task for after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Local officials said part of the problem was the state’s decision to change the entire way it handled FEMA claims earlier this year. A state subcontractor was working individually with local governments, but the state ended the contract after FEMA proposed streamlining operations by working directly with local governments.

FEMA’s federal coordinating officer had expressed an opinion that direct FEMA involvement would streamline the process, expedite appeals and reduce administration costs, wrote Bryan Koon, director of state emergency management, in an April 17 memo to the counties.

'So much redundancy'

Instead, local governments have become increasingly frustrated with the process.

Jason Yarborough, city administrator for the city of Lake Helen, which hopes to be reimbursed nearly $300,000, said it was “somewhat frustrating” to lose the contractor assigned to guide the city through the process.

“The state said you’re kind of on your own. We’ll help you as best we can with our staff,” Yarborough said. It’s also frustrating to have to submit all the information to a FEMA website and then resubmit all the same information to the state website, he said. “There’s so much redundancy."

“It feels like the documentation goes missing,” he said. “It feels like they’re requesting the same documents over and over again.”

After The News-Journal ran a story about Nelson’s local meeting, both the state Division of Emergency Management and FEMA said they were aware of the concerns.

“We’re trying to get these funds out as quickly as possible while maintaining that fiscal responsibility,” Moscoso said.

The project worksheets are complex, because they need to be accurate, he said. “They need to be vetted at every step of the process so there are not fiscal surprises down the road.”

Mary Hudak, FEMA Region 4 spokeswoman, said she understood local governments were frustrated at dealing with multiple FEMA teams.

FEMA’s field agents were “doubling down, looking to make sure it’s a seamless process to move these funds,” Hudak said.

“The objective is to make sure we have all the information and it might require us to send in a second team that has different expertise,” Hudak said. Depending on the complexity of the claim, for example, if engineering or environmental permits are required, additional information is sometimes necessary.

“If they have seen more than one team, it is likely because we are looking for additional information to make sure that all eligible damages are covered and considered for reimbursement,” she said. “That’s why the review process is so important, to make sure we have what we need to move it along in the funding process. So that communities don’t have to come back and appeal decisions or ask for funds that weren’t captured.”

“We recognize the most important thing is getting them their eligible funds as quickly as we can and we work very closely with the state to make sure that happens,” Hudak said.

Feds, state collaborating?

Moscoso and Hudak repeatedly stated the two agencies are working together, but Yarborough and others said that isn’t reflected in their experience.

The agencies should do “a better job of communicating” the reasons for all the redundancy,” the Lake Helen administrator said. “You clear one hurdle and you come right up to another one. I feel like I’m chasing my tail with Tallahassee.”

As for Volusia County’s Matthew reimbursements, Dinneen said the county’s best scenario is “the payment will come but will be delayed.”

“Paying us back when a cleanup is taking place isn’t high on the list of dealing with the issues they have right now,” he said. “The worst case is they’re not going to pay or what they’re going to pay is so far out in the future you really can’t count on it.”

Flagler County has given up on working with FEMA to try to do a more ambitious beach restoration project, Coffey said.

“We’ve abandoned trying to do anything beyond the simplest dune project with FEMA,” he said. “We’ve just got to move forward and protect our residents.”