Recovery efforts continue one month after Irma

Lee Herald Favicon 16On September 10, Hurricane Irma made landfall bringing an unprecedented amount of damage across the state. While life has returned to normal for many in Southwest Florida, local and federal agencies are still working to help those hardest hit and deal with the wreckage from the storm.

FEMA has been heavily involved in the recovery ever since Irma hit, opening a Disaster Recovery Center in Bonita Springs and deploying 44 Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams across Lee and Collier Counties. According to Steven Solomon, a FEMA spokesperson, the federal agency has fielded more than 2.38 million requests for assistance or information about recovery programs from across the state and 182,400 people have registered for aid in Southwest Florida alone.

Around $713 million has been approved for Florida residence through FEMA’s individual assistance program, which helps claimants deal with a myriad of different personal damages or losses from the storm. Flooding, the major source of damage in places like Bonita Springs and Everglades City, has triggered 24,000 flood-insurance claims through the Florida and National Flood Insurance Program and has resulted in $62 million in payments.

Not everyone who applies has their request approved, but all cases are subject to an appeals process. Solomon said that in many cases requests are declined due to simple mistakes on the application that can easily be fixed.

“Most of the time a determination letter goes out, if there was a problem, often it’s because there is a missing signature or just a piece of information,” Solomon said.

After a storm hits, the first recovery effort people look to is often getting the lights back on. Florida Power and Light underwent a mammoth effort after Irma, restoring power to over 4.4 million customers statewide. At one point, more than 28,000 workers labored to clear downed trees and repair lines until the company announced it had completed restoration work on September 22. FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said that post-restoration, the company’s top priority is evaluating the performance of the power grid during and after the storm.

“The big thing for us right now is doing what we consider a pretty detailed forensic analysis of our system to get a sense of just how exactly it performed and figure out how we can get even better in storm response,” said McGrath.

McGrath said early results point to the $3 billion that FPL has spent on improving its grid paying off. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the company invested heavily in strengthening transmission structures which shaved days off the recovery time for Irma.

FPL has identified two areas in which it needs to improve according to McGrath, communication with customers and educating residents on tree planting. Trees and other plant life blowing into powerlines was the number one cause of outages during Irma. While workers can reinforce the pole, lines will always be vulnerable. FPL plans on stepping up its efforts to educate both individuals and local governments on proper tree placement to avoid damaging power lines during a storm.

While not the first thing people think about after a storm, debris removal is a time-consuming and costly part of hurricane recovery. Estimates are placing the amount of plant debris left by Irma at about three million cubic yards in Lee County alone, more than three times the debris from Hurricane Charley. County staff said that the cost of cleanup will be between $55 and $60 million and could take more than five months. Currently, a website Lee County set up to track its progress shows the process as 25 percent complete. Despite commissioners objecting to the long recovery time, the county is in a bind. The wide impact of Irma means that waste removal contractors are in heavy demand and commanding a premium. County Manager Roger Desjarlais even went so far as to characterize contractors as “profiteers.”

Even if local governments can secure extra help to expedite the process, they risk endangering their reimbursement for debris removal from FEMA, which requires competitive contracts to be in place pre-storm. That could leave taxpayers footing the bill for tens of millions in recovery costs.

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