Lakeland has only gotten a small slice of the more than $1.02 billion FEMA said it’s paid to state and local governments for the 2017 storm. The city has only received about $435,000 back — or about 2.4% of its expenses.
(TNS) — In cleaning up after Hurricane Irma, the last detail on anyone's mind was marking down the GPS coordinates of where the dirt came from to fill holes left behind by toppled trees.
This is precisely the level of detail federal and state officials are asking Lakeland to supply when filing for $18.2 million in qualified disaster recovery reimbursement. Two years later, the city has only received approximately $435,000 back — or about 2.4% of its expenses.
"We have to show them down to the penny what we are asking for and that the reimbursement is related to storm restoration," City Manager Tony Delgado said. "With hundreds of trees being uprooted, they are asking what tree are you replanting it with and where are you getting the fill."
Lakeland has only received a small slice of the more than $1.02 billion FEMA announced it has paid out to state and local governments for the 2017 storm.
The city's first request for reimbursement entered into Federal Emergency Management Agency's online portal on July 31, 2018 was by Lakeland Electric for damage to its buildings and Winston Power Plant for a total cost of $17,925.94. These were the first of 28 projects for debris removal, building and road repair, emergency operations and utility rehab filed.
For Lakeland, Delgado said the proverb of the devil's in the details has proven true.
"We've learned a lot only after the fact," he said. "After supplying information we thought and was, at the time, proper, we've had to dig deeper and face a 100% audit. We've had to supply additional information."
Both Delgado and Gina Jacobi, LE's general assistant manager of fiscal operations, said it's this new 100% audit that has slowed down the reimbursement process, with questions and requests for more information back and forth between the state and city.
FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost to the state, which has started auditing all documented costs and receipts before agreeing to pay out FEMA's share plus 12.5 percent. City officials say it's because the state can be held liable for the money, if it doesn't prove it has upheld strict federal guidelines.
Crystal Buchanan, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the federal agency did change its required filing for reimbursement after Irma struck. Regional FEMA employees were not available for comment as all available personnel were sent to the Carolinas to help those affected by Hurricane Dorian, Buchanan said.
Despite the lengthy wait for funds, Delgado remains upbeat.
"We feel confident," he said. "We may not get 100% but we'll do pretty good. We are keeping our fingers crossed."
Delgado and Mike Brossart, the city's financial director, are hoping for 75% back from FEMA and the state. FEMA says it has paid out roughly 74 percent of the 7,959 projects filed so far.
"Reimbursement always leaves a small degree of uncertainty," Delgado said.
Jacobi was more conservative saying she hopes to receive 65% of the utility's costs back from FEMA. Lakeland Electric is still in the process of billing out $2.8 million for storm-hardening measures of its transmission and distribution lines. Joey Curry, the utility's assistant general manager of energy delivery, said the project replaces a row of wooden poles along a transmission line built in 1969 with steel ones and incorporates new switches into its grid to better section off damaged areas in the future.
Lakeland officials and the municipal-owned utility said as long as the funds are eventually received that there is no immediate risk of city residents feeling the pinch.
"If it's a 50% or less reimbursement, we probably will have to look at making some modifications," Delgado said. "We're not at that point yet."
Joel Ivy, LE's general manager, added that FEMA's payback "is not necessarily a driver for whether or not we have a rate increase."
On Aug. 19, Lakeland commissioners approved extending the contract with Thompson Consulting Services to provide assistance with handling documentation requested by FEMA related to Irma. This contract will cost $65,300, according to Brossart, of which 75% is reimbursable and will cost the city an additional $8,100.
Since Irma, Lakeland Electric has built a new DARTs software system to help its linesmen quickly and accurately record the exact location and details of damaged poles and lines to speed up its response. The system also generates the detailed information FEMA requires.
Delgado said the city has adopted a new motto of always preparing for the worst since Irma. Lakeland's emergency operation center and staff were in place well ahead of Dorian's threat. It's one of the many takeaways from Sept. 11, 2017, when Irma swept through Polk County.
"Irma has never left anyone's mind," he said. "I don't think Irma is going to leave Lakeland's memory for quite a while. We now use it as a gauge for others."
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545.
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