In the months since Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne struck Florida, impacted counties and towns have been working to restore their damaged roads, airports, schools, hospitals, water treatment facilities, waste water systems and emergency services.
Under the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public assistance program, state, local and non-profit entities can apply for the reimbursement of costs for debris removal, emergency protective measures and permanent restoration in counties declared major disasters by the president. For the Florida hurricanes, the federal government is reimbursing 90 percent of these eligible costs; state and local governments will pay the remaining 10 percent.
More than 2,600 state, local and non-profit entities applied for FEMA’s public assistance grants. The federal agency currently has obligated more than $371 million to the state of Florida to release to applicants – and that number will increase as thousands of project requests are reviewed.
The federal grant reimbursement program is based on a partnership between FEMA, state and local officials. After local officials identify damage and start project work, they work with state and FEMA officials to submit required documentation. Once approved, FEMA sends obligated funds to the state to disperse to applicants. Generally, requests are reviewed on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Unlike the faster disbursement for individual assistance immediately following disasters, federal regulations mandate both federal and state governments approve public assistance projects before any federal taxpayer dollars may be disbursed.
Once a project is approved, if it is less than $54,100, the state will process the payment automatically; if it is greater than that, it is usually reimbursed on a pay-as-you-go basis, with bills for each segment of completed work required for submission and approval by the state and federal governments.
“Project applications are being reviewed as quickly as possible so funds can be directed to local governments and agencies to make needed repairs,” said Craig Fugate, state coordinating officer, who heads the State Emergency Response Team (SERT). “Funds have been obligated, and local governments will see an increase in the flow of monies as the applications are completed for the reimbursement of eligible expenses.”
For project requests larger than $1 million, FEMA is required to notify Congress. During this process, FEMA headquarters, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Management and Budget and then Congress must review the project before funds are released to the state for dispersal.
“Quality reviews must be performed when allotting taxpayer money,” said Bill Carwile, federal coordinating officer with FEMA. “Questions about accuracy and insufficient paperwork will slow the process, as we try to ensure all dollars are dispensed appropriately.”
Grant denials can be appealed within 60 days after an initial decision. Appeals are first evaluated by the state within 60 days and then forwarded to FEMA’s regional director for a decision within 90 days. If a second appeal is made, the appeal again goes to the state for a recommendation and then on to FEMA headquarters for review by the director of the Recovery Division and the head of FEMA for a final decision.
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