New hurricane season, old worries: Alabama cities and counties wait for millions after last year’s storms
The hurricane season is starting again today and the forecast is not reassuring.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that up to 20 named storms will develop through November 30.
Complicating the bleak outlook is that the Alabama coast remains unable to weather last year’s two-stroke blow from Hurricanes Sally and Zeta. Frustrations expressed within city halls and county courthouses center on the long wait for clean-up costs to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The disturbing new hurricane forecast only adds to the stress. The concerns of officials can be summed up as follows: If FEMA continues to pony up for last year’s cleanup, any new hurricane will devastate our budgets.
Already, cities and counties have had to resort to borrowing or tapping into limited reserve and capital accounts to meet their Sally and Zeta bills.
In some cases, such as at the Baldwin County Commission, two lines of credit – totaling over $ 60 million – had to be extended to pay contractors who handled Sally’s cleanup.
The Category 2 Sally blew sustained winds of 105 mph when it made landfall at Gulf Shores in September and moved north and east. Few areas of the county have been spared the damage, and the bills reflect the extensive work done by contractors to clear the mounds of debris piled up on the sides of the roads.
“We’re not trying to get them to turn the tide in two weeks or whatever, but that storm happened on September 16,” Baldwin County Commissioner Joe Davis said.
He pointed out that the forecast for the new hurricane season calls for several Category 3 or stronger storms. “Hopefully it doesn’t (affect) us. Hope it’s nobody. But we can’t pay our bills or our services with hope and an IOU, ”Davis said.
Here are some examples of local cleaning bills from last year:
- Foley’s total response cost around $ 13 million, most of which is supposed to reimburse FEMA. So far, the agency has approved only two reimbursement projects totaling more than $ 40,000, according to city administrator Mike Thompson.
- Gulf Shores spent about $ 12.5 million on cleaning fees and was only reimbursed about $ 60,000, according to city spokesman Grant Brown.
- Daphne is still awaiting repayments of $ 4 million to $ 5 million, according to Mayor Robin LeJeune. So far, around $ 100,000 has been received, the mayor said.
- Bay Minette has $ 1.5 million in reimbursable expenses, of which only $ 10,000 was sent to the city.
- Elberta is online for $ 750,000 or more in FEMA refunds. While waiting for the federal dollars, he had taken out additional loans to pay the cleaning contractors.
‘GOOD FIRST STEP’
Under a “public assistance” disaster declaration, FEMA reimburses state, county, and local governments for 75% of the debris disposal costs associated with a storm.
President Donald Trump declared Hurricane Sally a disaster very soon after it struck. But, in the case of 19 counties in Alabama, the October 29 Zeta disaster declaration did not arrive until December 10.
“FEMA has faced a lot this year,” said Jim Hamby, Mayor of Elberta. “Throw COVID on it, throw forest fires on it and several hurricanes. He said, ‘They are slow. But thank God, they are here to pay 75%. “
FEMA representatives continue to preach patience. Spokesman Ron Roth said the repayment deadline calls for state or local government agencies to receive payment between seven months and a year and a half after a disaster declaration.
“We’re not that far off the line here,” Roth said. “But I understand the frustrations. They have a hurricane season approaching and they are struggling to make the necessary repairs… We are doing everything we can to keep this wheel spinning.
Roth said the main challenge is obtaining “quantifiable information” that allows the agency to corroborate expenses and reimbursements.
Roth said 37% of public assistance claims related to Sally’s damages went to government agencies, for a total of $ 38 million. Another 98 requests are in the process of being approved, Roth said, for a total of $ 70 million. An additional 125 to 130 projects remain pending, in which FEMA is collecting data for further review. That total, Roth said, is around $ 122 million.
Data on Hurricane Zeta, in many cases, is still being accumulated. Clarke County, hit hard by the storm, is still awaiting invoices from contractors who handled the debris removal. The county, which estimates its Zeta costs at around $ 4.5 million, has taken out a loan to pay various urgent bills.
“You had to do it,” county administrator Christy Roberts said. ” We had to do something. You just can’t leave the debris on the side of the road.
‘SHOW YOUR WORK’
FEMA has moved forward over the past two weeks with large reimbursements related to Sally’s cleanup. The agency announced that $ 9.7 million had been approved for Fairhope and $ 6.6 million for Orange Beach. In both cases, this represented 75% of the tab.
For the county itself, FEMA confirmed last week that it would be sending $ 16.2 million. The county’s overall cleanup bill was $ 82 million. “It’s a good first step,” said Davis. “It’s a great sign and lets (the public) know the needle has been moved.”
In early April, a contingent from Baldwin County met with Brian Hastings, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, and Jo Bonner, chief of staff to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, to seek clarity on storm repayments. Representatives of FEMA also attended the meeting.
“It has been way too slow,” said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who attended the meeting. “At the end of the day, they can move as fast as they want or as slowly as they want. They are moving too slowly for my liking. “
Indeed, coastal officials argue that the FEMA process has been too cumbersome compared to previous storms. Some also wonder if the agency has enough staff to handle the workload. Last year the Atlantic hurricane season broke all records: 30 named storms, including 14 hurricanes. In the western states, fierce forest fires have caused damages of $ 20 billion. And on top of all that, a pandemic has swept the globe.
“They’re more meticulous, more of a ‘show your work’ approach, if you will,” said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier, a veteran of hurricanes and FEMA requests for assistance. “We have to overcome more obstacles than in the past. Doing so results in a slower repayment time and it takes more time to do some upstream calculations.
One issue for Dauphin Island and parts of Mobile County has been chronicling all of the damage Sally and Zeta have done. Collier said work crews on Dauphin Island were still dealing with Sally’s cleanup when Zeta barged in.
Some coastal leaders have said FEMA is hampered by travel restrictions linked to the pandemic, requiring virtual tours to confirm the merits of reimbursement claims.
“I’m not saying that in the past they were going to cut corners, but usually FEMA would come up and say, ‘It’s more and more’ and ‘people don’t seem to despise us’ and then the process would move forward, ”said Mike Evans, deputy director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. “This time around, there seems to be a 100% ‘watch everything that goes on’ approach.”
According to Roth, FEMA is a “data validation” freak, which means that a single complaint can engage staff for a considerable period of time. He said a claim for reimbursement submitted to the agency last year was accompanied by 40,000 photographs.
“The vast majority of the photos we get are the top of a tree and a blue sky,” Roth said, explaining that there is no identifying information to show where the photos were taken.
Roth said, “The Applicant sees this as a problem for us. They should go back to the contractor and ask him to better document what they are doing. “
Additionally, some refund requests can trigger what Roth called a “yellow flag”. He gave an example that most certainly needs verification: A contractor, he said, applied for reimbursement of $ 1,300 per day spent on accommodation and meals.
“We have to question these things,” Roth said. He declined to say whether the example he provided happened on the Alabama coast.
“We look at it and say, ‘We want to be responsible with taxpayer money,’” Roth said. “I don’t think anyone wants to intentionally defraud. We want to be responsible. There are specific procurement rules that we have to follow and we ask: “Is this true?” “
Roth said FEMA refers to these analyzes as “the integrity of the audit.”
He added: “These are the kinds of things that we consider a yellow flag and that we need to check.”
FEMA, he said, is keen to avoid situations in which the federal government later discovers a claim issue that had been overlooked and orders the local government to reimburse part of the refund.
Roth took issue with the suggestion that FEMA is “stretched”. But he said the agency was emerging from a historic year of multiple disasters and that “resources are precious.”
All that aside, Orange Beach’s Kennon and others say that with a new hurricane season at hand, FEMA must wrap up last year’s work, clean up the bridges and fight back. According to Kennon: “After these last 18 months, we have to be prepared for anything, including locusts and frogs.”