At around 10:30 this morning, FEMA’s Samuel Lockey and his team of Federal Emergency Management Agency assessors, along with officials from the Small Business Administration, state and local officials were getting their last briefing at Flagler County’s Emergency Operations Center before touring the county on a second day of evaluations of damages to homes.
The evaluators are gathering damage data that will decide whether Flagler County’s residents hit hard by Hurricane Matthew get a FEMA emergency designation or not. Contrary to a common misconception, that designation is not in place at the moment—and Flagler could very well not get it. But local officials are hopeful it will, not just because of the damage out there, but because it’s an election year, and the White House doesn’t want to make Floridians unhappy.
“It is an election year so we will probably be getting it,” Flagler County Property Appraiser Jay Gardner said this morning. “Guaranteed. Guaranteed.”
Flagler County did get two FEMA emergency declarations: “It’s a declaration for public assistance for Category A, which is debris, and B, which is emergency protective measures,” said Steve Garten, Flagler County’s emergency services manager. Emergency protective measures covers government responders and services. “That’s currently the only declaration the state of Florida has.”
Those declarations do not apply to homeowners who have suffered serious or total losses to their homes. That determination is pending. That’s what this morning’s FEMA team was setting out to calculate, after Flagler County provided them with its own evaluation of the damage out there, which adds up to this: 16 homes destroyed, 186 heavily damaged, 369 with minor damage, and 1,600 “affected,” which can mean anything from the loss of a few shingles to peripheral damage. (For a very detailed report on how FEMA evaluates damage, see the report at the foot of the story.)
FEMA doesn’t pay much attention to minor or “affected” damage. It’s interested in heavy or total losses.
“We have individuals right now with FEMA doing individual assistance assessments to verify our number of damaged homes, equal to what they need to have a declaration for individual assistance here in our county,” Garten said.
The evaluators will send their findings to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to request an emergency declaration regardless. But that request goes to the White House. It’s up to President Obama to enact it. Should he do so, homeowners would then be required to apply for Small Business Administration loans to get their repairs done, and only iof they fail to get those loans would they qualify for direct federal aid.
There’s a threshold for such declarations as far as costs to local governments are concerned: in Flagler, it’s $341,638. Local governments have exceeded that cost already. But no one knows the magic threshold that applies to private homes and businesses. Flagler has estimated total damages in those categories at $73 million. The figure is likely to go up, especially as some houses, such as half a dozen houses in Beverly Beach south of Varn Park, may be total losses as their foundations suffer further erosion damage.
“For individual assistance there is not a threshold,” Garten said. “It’s a determination made by the federal government on each storm depending on how many counties are affected, so I’m hopeful by us going out a second day and getting accurate information to these people that we get a declaration, but it does come onto FEMA to make that determination.”
Does politics play a role in the declaration? “It does. It does,” Garten said emphatically. “I can tell you that right now by working prior with FEMA, is that in 2004, when the ‘04 storms hit, a lot of the declarations afterward actually gave an additional cost-share because it was an election year, they were absolutely trying to get additional funding in to help their party. So it does come into effect, yes.”
“All I’m doing is gathering data,” FEMA’s Samuel Lockey said this morning, just before setting out. He would not venture any estimates on what he’d evaluated on Wednesday. “The damage we saw was consistent with hurricane-force wind and storm surge.”
Flagler County is hoping for the declaration, but not counting on it. “Our assistance center is ramping up rapidly,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, referring to the FEMA-like but entirely county-based assistance center that opened at the county public library on Palm Coast Parkway on Wednesday. The center helped some 400 people on its first day, whether to line them up with contractors, help them with food assistance, emergency loans, debris removal or other services.
“We’re getting better and better every day, bringing resources to the table,” Coffey continued. “We’re in contact with Rep. Renner and Sen. Hutson and various state agencies to do that. We’re doing that outside of FEMA and waiting for as declaration hopefully today for individual assistance but we know there’s people hurting and we’re trying to do our best to do something to help them today, not wait.”
Coffey has continued to manager the emergency from the Emergency Operations Center alongside Garten and many others, though clearly one of the goals of the last two days has been to convince FEMA officials of the county’s needs.
“We are arguing with them constantly to try to make them aware that these homes were damaged greater than what they’re considering it,” Garten said. “I have to argue nicely, I don’t want to upset them which might shut down the whole effort, and I use science. We had flooding occur, we had high winds, there’s sand in certain of these areas, we had to send out in jet skis to rescue people in certain areas, so even though the water might have rescinded, and people don’t remember what occurred a week ago as far as the exact amount of inches, there is still damage there, and we’re trying, again, to help people get funding from the federal government.”
[This is the first of two stories today on Hurricane Matthew recovery. A second story later this afternoon focuses on ongoing damage management on the Barrier Island.]