A state program set up in 2018 to help people whose homes were damaged or destroyed in Hurricane Irma in 2017 has been plagued by delays and has only completed one project in the Florida Keys to date.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity launched the Rebuild Florida program in September 2018 to help workers and their families rebuild their homes after Hurricane Irma. The program is designed to pay for significant repairs of homes for people who did not have insurance or enough insurance, did not receive federal disaster funding and do not have the funds to complete work on their homes.
The program was initially greeted with much enthusiasm by both Keys residents and elected leaders, but that exuberance has turned into frustration for Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron and down right anger for Rebuild Florida participant Brian Branigan, who was finally assigned a contractor on Wednesday.
The Keys were arguably the hardest hit area in Hurricane Irma, as it was a Category 4 storm when it came across the chain of islands. The state DEO has awarded nearly $40 million to 151 Keys homeowners for home repair and replacement projects as part of the Rebuild Florida program. Of that, 61 projects have been assigned to contractors, with 39 in the preconstruction permitting phase and 15 in the construction phase, according to Emilie Oglesby, a DEO spokeswoman.
However, only one project has been fully completed, Oglesby said.
Deputy County Administrator Christine Hurley, who has been monitoring the Rebuild Florida program since its inception, cited several problems that have led to extensive delays in starting and completing repair and replacement projects.
Rebuild Florida has been plagued with staff turnover in its ranks, which have impacted projects in the Keys, Hurley said.
DEO has seen much change in its top personnel and lower levels since the program was launched under former Gov. Rick Scott, including the loss of DEO Executive Director Cissy Proctor, when Ron DeSantis took over as governor and then DEO Secretary Ken Lawson resigned last year as DEO executive director, amid major problems with the state’s unemployment assistance program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those administrative changes have trickled down to changes in local people handling Keys cases in the Rebuild Florida program. Big Pine Key resident Brian Branigan has had four case managers handle his project in the past three years, he said.
A lack of contractors based or even working in the Keys has also been a problem. There are currently only two or three contractors working for Rebuild Florida in the Keys, Hurley said.
Hurley speculated that the lack of participation among contractors could be because of the tedious amount of paperwork required for the program, which is needed for funding through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.
“We’re hopeful that the new staff make better strides to improve spending in the program and from February to March we saw a marked improvement in property owners being helped with the Rebuild Florida funding,” Hurley said.
Rebuild Florida also requires that a state consultant calculates the scope of work and estimated cost on an individual project, but that scope of work ends up changing once a contractor is assigned to the project and the contractor determines what needs to be replaced or fixed, Hurley said. This can result in delays as well, with required recalculations causing reissuance of grant funding amounts, Hurley said.
“Under the governor’s direction, the department has taken a deep look into this program since our new executive director, Dane Eagle, took over in September,” DEO spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby said in an email to The Key West Citizen.
The new look at the program included restructuring and staffing assessments at DEO, contract review, contractor and subcontractor management, review of laws, rules, and regulations at the federal, state and local levels, Oglesby said.
DEO is working in close coordination with Monroe County officials to identify strategies to address challenges and is committed to restoring residents of the Florida Keys who were impacted by Hurricane Irma to “decent, safe, and sanitary homes as expeditiously as possible, while working within the laws governing construction in Monroe County and the regulations set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Oglesby said.
Construction in the Florida Keys poses some challenges, Oglesby said. Challenges include building regulations unique to the area, a moratorium on new mobile homes, a high cost of construction, and a supply shortage, which have been exacerbated by factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
However, those answers have done little to appease Mayor Coldiron and Branigan.
“It’s a debacle,” Branigan said. “The wrong people are in charge. I don’t its a scam, but it’s a debacle. It’s really unprofessional.”
Branigan, who was living in a 1974 mobile home in Big Pine Key, had just finished renovating his trailer two weeks before Irma hit. After the storm, everything from the windows down was destroyed, including the floor, kitchen and appliances. He received a contractor’s quote for repairs and filed an application with Rebuild Florida.
When Branigan calls asking what the status of his project is, he received “vague answers that don’t really answer the questions.” He called the answers “stall tactics” and referred to DEO as the “Department of Evasive Operations.”
Mayor Coldiron has been working on helping to resolve these delays since she took office more than two years ago, she said.
“I am as frustrated as I can be,” she said. “It’s been going on this many years and [they] have only one home built and still have people not assigned contractors. I don’t think they understand the complexities of Monroe County. I think they think we are just a county bumped up against another county. They haven’t even come to the Keys to see how logistically challenging they are.”