MARATHON, FL – Monroe County officials and staff, along with other leaders in the Keys, met with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) at a public roundtable at the Marathon Government Center on Wednesday. The discussion focused on a variety of issues and challenges at the federal level regarding recovery from Hurricane Irma.
Monroe County and the Keys municipalities all cited one major problem: slow FEMA reimbursement for Irma emergency expenses incurred by the County and municipalities.
The local leaders told Rubio the County and municipalities had spent all or most of their emergency reserves for Irma, and need to replenish those reserves soon with the next hurricane season just two months away.
As of March 30, the County has submitted $17.4 million in expenses for reimbursement. It’s a complex process to ensure taxpayer money is properly spent. So far, FEMA has approved $3.3 million of this submitted amount and has sent the funding to the state Department of Emergency Management (DEM). But DEM has yet to finish its approval process and send the funds to the County.
With resources exhausted and no FEMA reimbursement to date, the County has had to take out a $40 million line of credit to ensure being able to cover Irma expenses. The County has estimated a preliminary cost of $93.3 million for Hurricane Irma-related expenses. This figure does not include the airports or mitigation.
The County and municipality officials asked Rubio to do what he can to speed up FEMA’s approval of submitted expenses. They also asked him to look into why the state has been slow in processing the FEMA reimbursement money that has been sent to DEM for disbursement to the County and municipalities.
Rubio said the FEMA approval process takes longer today to make sure the fraud that took place during Hurricane Katrina does not repeat itself. “But this seems like an overcorrection,” he said.
“We need to make sure the money is approved. Can’t spend it if Congress doesn’t appropriate it,” Rubio added. “Step two now is getting the money out of the agencies and into your bank accounts, so you can hire companies to do the canal cleanup and the like.
“And, of course, [getting] FEMA reimbursement, which depending upon who you talk to on any given day, it’s either in Tallahassee or in Washington, but it isn’t here.”
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers asked Rubio for federal help to address the Keys workforce housing crisis that was made worse by Irma. Initial damage assessments in the Keys showed that 4,156 homes were either destroyed or substantially damaged.
“I am very concerned that we are going to lose a great deal of our residents who have been just getting by to get their kids through this school year,” she told him. “And when they leave, we are not going to have the workforce to keep our economy moving. And what we need to do is deal with housing. We need some place for them to go. The storm revealed the real depth of the problem we have here.”
Rubio also toured a canal in Marathon to see the marine debris that remains from Irma and he visited Fishermen’s Community Hospital, which was severely damaged by Irma and has to be rebuilt.
Local leaders asked Rubio to support Monroe County’s applications for Natural Resources Conservation Service and NOAA disaster funds for Monroe’s marine cleanup from Irma, which has an estimated price tag of $52 million.
“Thank you for being here today and thank you for all you’ve done for us,” Monroe County Mayor David Rice told Rubio. “I know you already are aware or heard of some of Monroe County issues. It’s amazing how they all boil down to money, isn’t it? I know you are on our side working on this.”
Photos by Cammy Clark
Photo 1: L-R Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi and Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron discuss Hurricane Irma marine debris cleanup funding at an impacted canal in Marathon.
Photo 2: At Monroe County’s Marathon Government Center, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio held a public roundtable with local leaders regarding Hurricane Irma recovery efforts in the Keys.