Preparedness & Recovery

Hurricane Irma: Panel Says Storm Stretched Federal, Local Response

Projections show the state will advance about $665 million for hurricane-related expenses.

by Patrick Riley, Naples Daily News, Fla. / November 3, 2017
AP/Paul Chiasson

(TNS) — When Hurricane Irma swept through Florida more than 1½ months ago, the giant storm quickly stretched federal resources, tested local governments' emergency plans and left so much destruction in its wake it could make the storm one of the costliest in the state's history.

Hurricane Andrew "is nothing compared to Irma," said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, during a panel discussion in North Naples on Thursday, referring to the 1992 Category 5 storm that led to sweeping changes in the insurance industry, weather forecasting and disaster response.

"Irma hit the entire state."

Passidomo — speaking as part of a panel put on by the Naples Press Club at the Tiburón Golf Club — said projections show the state "will advance about $665 million for hurricane-related expenses."

State officials hope 75 to 95 percent of that will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.

"That's a huge number," Passidomo said. "This is not going to be a cheap storm. We're going to surpass probably Andrew, which was our highest expenditure."

Irma, which made landfall in Collier County on Sept. 10, posed significant challenges to local officials, too.

Dan Summers, director of the Collier emergency operations center, praised the community's resolve, the partnership with state and federal officials and the work of "second responders" who labored behind the scenes during the storm recovery effort.

But he said the far-reaching storm made it hard to adequately prepare.

"We had over 17,000 people in shelters," said Summers, who also spoke as a member of the panel. "And I will tell you that we underestimated. Our planning assumptions were too low for sheltering."

In the days and hours leading to the storm's arrival in Southwest Florida, many residents faced long lines to enter shelters. Some had to look elsewhere as Collier officials navigated the largest evacuation in the county's history.

Summers said Irma's size and path made it difficult for residents looking to evacuate to know where to go.

The storm "coming up the spine, or up the center of the peninsula, generated such a large evacuation number in Collier County," he said. "We're going to go back and take a look at that."

For FEMA officials, the storm — sandwiched between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Texas and Puerto Rico, respectively — put a strain on federal resources, delayed housing inspections and overwhelmed the agency's hotline in the aftermath.

Irma was unprecedented in its prolonged intensity, said Dolph Diemont, a federal coordinating officer for FEMA who spoke as part of the three-person panel.

"Packing 185 mph winds for 37 hours straight," he said, reading from a prepared statement. "The longest on record maintained by any cyclone around the globe."

Since the storm, 2.6 million individuals and families have registered for FEMA assistance, Diemont said, which exceeds the registrations for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy combined.

"And that number continues to increase," he said, adding that the registration deadline was extended to Nov. 24.

So far, almost 71,000 residents in Collier have registered with FEMA, Diemont said. Of the more than $1.3 billion in federal assistance distributed throughout Florida to date, about $52.5 million went to Collier, he said.

Still, Diemont acknowledged that the agency — spread thin between three major storms — initially struggled to keep up with a flood of calls from residents trying to register and lagged behind in inspecting damaged homes.

"This resulted in longer processing times," he said. "Our 1-800 number was frequently overwhelmed, and applicants complained of very long wait times, hours sometimes. Housing inspections were also delayed. Some waited for a month or longer to get their inspections."

But Diemont said the agency brought in additional call center staff and increased its capacity to bring the hold time down to under a minute. FEMA also beefed up its number of housing inspectors, he said.

"We did whatever we could as best as we could," Diemont said. "But I know a lot of people are frustrated."

Diemont, in response to a question from the audience, also said that Everglades City — one of the hardest hit communities where relief was slow to arrive and many returned to uninhabitable homes — is "one of our highest priority areas."

As of Thursday, 9,986 residents were eligible for rental assistance in Collier, Summers said. As part of transitional sheltering, which takes individuals from a shelter to a hotel, 112 residents are staying in hotels out of county and 343 in Collier hotels, he said.

Additionally, 81 Collier families are eligible for FEMA housing, Summers said.

Though he said the agency's housing mission in Florida will be "long and complicated," Diemont said FEMA is committed to stay for as long as it needs "to get the job done."

"We'll continue to work through these recovery challenges," he said.

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©2017 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

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