JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — As the floodwaters recede and the recovery begins, communities swamped by Hurricane Florence soon will be facing deadlines to document the billions of dollars in damage it caused if they want to be reimbursed by the federal government.
A missed deadline could be costly, even if it’s not directly the fault of the affected community, according to an Associated Press analysis of recent appeals decided by top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The AP found that tardiness is one of the most common reasons FEMA headquarters has denied appeals from cities, school districts and other public entities, accounting for well over $100 million in lost appeals over the past 12 months alone. FEMA’s strict enforcement of deadlines means it hasn’t even considered the merits of some appeals.
As it has focused on punctuality, FEMA denied about 4-of-every-5 funding appeals that rose to its headquarters over the past couple years, up from a two-thirds denial rate over the prior decade, according to the AP’s analysis.
“We have been increasingly looking to apply the time frames for the appeals,” said FEMA’s deputy director for public assistance, Tod Wells. “The objective is to establish a sound and reliable process,” so communities hit by disasters such as Hurricane Florence can know what to expect.
Some on the losing end say another factor is in play — saving money.
“We recognize that in the last year FEMA has made many improvements to its management of appeals and created transparency in the process, and that a large reason for strict adherence to timeframes is to drive down the costs of disasters,” said Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA rejected $11 million for a Nashville drinking water treatment plant flooded in 2010. The agency said it received the appeal years too late, though Sheehan contends it was submitted on time.
The recent appeal denials for missed deadlines include a total of $67 million sought by the tornado-ravaged schools of Joplin, Missouri, and $3.3 million that FEMA ordered be repaid by the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines for the cleanup of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“We followed to the ‘T’ all the FEMA requirements, and I can tell you they’re very particular about documentation and recording,” said Pembroke Pines City Manager Charles Dodge. “To the best of my knowledge, that wasn’t even looked it. It was just the question of ‘Hey, we didn’t get the form on time. Sorry folks, you’re out. Pay us back.'”