State backs city's challenge to FEMA rule change

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The Florida Division of Emergency Management has backed Apalachicola’s appeal of a more than half-million-dollar claim that FEMA had rejected based on a recent rule change regarding roads submerged by flooding.

If the Oct. 29 decision by Melissa Shirah, FDEM’s recovery bureau chief stands, then Leo Bebeau. the city’s s finance director, will succeed in securing for the city nearly $534,000 for Leslie Street road repairs based on high winds, heavy rain and flooding from Hurricane Sally in Sept. 2020, a slow-moving Category 2 hurricane that dumped between 20 to 30 inches of rainfall in many Panhandle locations.

Bebeau had appealed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rejection, and Shirah said FEMA had deviated from established processes, and urged the agency to reconsider its decision to disallow all funding “and determine the extent of the disaster damages to the (city’s) facilities.”

In her letter, Shirah noted that FEMA does not provide funding for repair of damage caused by deterioration, deferred maintenance, failure to take measures to protect against further damage, or negligence. But, she goes on to say, a newly introduced Submerged Roads Policy, that places additional considerations specific to submerged gravel roads, is being wrongly applied.

“FEMA is now requiring applicants to demonstrate actual gravel surface loss, reimbursing only for portions of the road that were disaster damaged, excluding rutting of submerged sections, and stating outright that corrugation is not eligible for repair or restoration,” she wrote. “The policy does not provide any reasoning or explanation concerning why FEMA concluded that these items are not caused by inundation.”

In her letter Shirah says the policy “has resulted in mass de-obligations for disaster damages resulting from inundation of unpaved roads.”

She wrote that FEMA’s focus on ensuring its programs are accessible to underserved and historically marginalized communities is undermined by the new policy.

“Many unpaved roads are located in rural areas typically classified as fiscally constrained (and) this is especially true for counties impacted by Hurricane Sally, (since) nine of the 14 declared counties are classified as fiscally constrained," she wrote. “Applying this policy disproportionately impacts these communities and effectively prevents them from recovering from disasters."

Shirah wrote that Franklin County’s median household income is far below the state and national medians, with more residents living below the poverty line than either the state or nation.

“Furthermore, the COVID- 10 pandemic has resulted in significant losses in available local revenue. The city cannot absorb the costs of repairing the damages caused by Hurricane Sally, and should not have to as these are damages that are ordinarily eligible for reimbursement if not for the recently promulgated policy,” she wrote, urging a reversal of the policy “because it disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities and leaves them unable to recover after a disaster.”

Bebeau said he was pleased the FDEM sided with his appeal.

“They’re throwing down the gauntlet,” he said. “FEMA has started denying a whole lot of claims from small communities.”

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