It has been over a year since Valarie Sims and her family slept under the roof of their own home. Hours after Hurricane Irma blew through Ocala, she and her husband Lewis returned to their 32-year-old house only to find it submerged in water.
“Mostly everything within the house was destroyed,” Sims said. “We had about three to four feet of flooding in the house.”
Sims, like many citizens of Marion County, is still dealing with the financial impact created by Irma more than a year later.
Ocala’s Budget Director Tammi Haslam said the city incurred $8.2 million in expenses due to Irma. The city began applying for reimbursement through FEMA more than a year ago, but Haslam said no reimbursement payments have arrived yet.
“We are just to the point where we have about 90 percent of our information that has been submitted through FEMA’s portals,” he said. “We are not at that stage yet where we are starting to receive money.”
Haslam also said the city is expecting at least 75 percent of its expenses that were approved by FEMA to be reimbursed. The plan is to use the money to replenish the city’s reserve funds, though the city currently has no timetable as to when reimbursement will begin.
Darren Park, Ocala’s public works director, said roughly $3 million of the city’s hurricane expenses were needed for public works programs. Most of the money was spent on clearing fallen vegetation throughout the city. Firms associated with FEMA monitored the cleanup extensively until its completion on March 2, according to Park.
“The process is very involved and that is what you are required to do in terms of being eligible for the FEMA reimbursement,” Park said. “The strategy was to maximize that reimbursement, so you want to make sure that you are following all FEMA guidelines.”
Alberto Pillot, a media relations specialist for FEMA, said applicants on average receive 75 percent reimbursement of all approved disaster expenses from FEMA. Pillot said that as of Oct. 24, FEMA has paid $294.2 million to the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM).
FEMA provides the funding to the state after all financial documentation has been received and reviewed, Pillot said. Through FDEM, the state disburses these funds to state and local government agencies based on the reimbursement applications received.
According to FDEM, it has made 366 reimbursement payments totaling $117.3 million to state and local government agencies as of Oct. 24. There is still $371.7 million worth of reported expenses that are still under FEMA review.
While Ocala sustained the largest financial impact, other cities in Marion County are still dealing with financial holes created by Irma.
According to Dunnellon’s city administrator Dawn Bowne and the city’s finance officer Jan Smith, the city incurred $107,000 in hurricane-related expenses. Dunnellon, like Ocala, has not yet received any reimbursement from FEMA. While Bowne admits the city fared better through Irma than it originally had anticipated, there was still a significant impact on the city’s reserves.
“Even though $100,000 to a lot of communities may just be sort of a drop in the bucket, our whole budget at that point was $2.7 million. So since it is such a small budget, that is a lot of money to us,” Bowne said. “We don’t have enough leeway in our budget to take a $100,000 hit in our budget and not feel it.”
Smith said the city reserves four to six months of operational expenses for city-wide emergencies such as a hurricane.
Sandi McKamey, Belleview’s city administrator, said the city will soon receive a FEMA reimbursement between $600 and $700. McKamey said this will be the first reimbursement check the city will receive from FEMA as part of $2.2 million worth of hurricane expenses they reported to FEMA. McKamey is unsure of when the city will receive future payments and how much of their total expenses will be reimbursed.
“We’re on step two or three as part of a 13-step process,” McKamey said.
While Marion County cities wait for reimbursement, Sims and her family managed to receive approximately $30,000 from FEMA within a few months after Irma destroyed their home. Even though FEMA funds helped cover some of their expenses, the family continues to struggle to find a way to pay for the estimated $80,000 to $100,00 in repairs.
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