When I met with Gov. Ron DeSantis about taking on the role as Executive Director of DEO, he told me helping Floridians recover from Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew, Irma and Michael were my No. 1 priority.
I took this order seriously.
My first week on the job, I moved the staff working on the Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program out from another division and created the Office of Disaster Recovery, having that team report directly to me.
In addition, I immediately identified the need to dramatically increase the staffing capacity to effectively administer this program. I am proud to say that we went from five people working on this program in January 2019, to 57 individuals on the payroll to administer these funds today.
This doesn’t include the 1,000 plus employees at the agency who understand this is our No. 1 priority and find a way to incorporate it into the great work they are already doing for Floridians.
I would like to introduce you to the 57 individuals who are working around the clock to help administer these critical dollars in communities around the state. This is my team:
First, it is important for you to know the funding administered by DEO is federal funding coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the CDBG-DR program.
This funding is appropriated by Congress to help communities throughout our country rebuild after disasters.
Click here to view a video created by HUD that explains the lengthy process it takes to get this funding to states after each appropriation.
In short, states must wait on Congress to appropriate CDBG-DR funding. Then HUD must tell states how much they will receive for each disaster. Next, HUD must publish a federal register on how the funding will work for that storm.
Then, each state must develop and submit a State Action Plan on how they will utilize the funding. HUD typically gives themselves 60 days to review the plans, but timing can change with each federal register. Then a grant agreement must be signed by HUD and the state. And after that, the state can distribute funds.
Here is a quick look at when all of those steps happened for the last three years.
Hurricane Hermine made landfall in September 2016, and Hurricane Matthew made landfall in October 2016. These storms were the first to hit our state in 10 years that received CDBG-DR funding. It wasn’t until September 2017, DEO received a signed grant agreement from HUD for Hurricane Hermine, one year after the storm made landfall.
In April 2018, DEO received a signed grant agreement for Matthew, more than one and half years after the storm impacted Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall in September 2017, and DEO received a fully executed grant agreement in August 2018, 11 months after Irma made landfall.
While the state of Florida is thankful for the federal aid, the process to receive funds takes a long time.
Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew (funds administered locally)
For all storms before Hurricane Irma, including Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, affected local governments directly administered CDBG-DR funds in their communities. To accomplish that arrangement, the state would contract with each affected local government and would reimburse the affected local government as work is completed pursuant to the contract.
For Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, DEO awarded nearly $107 million to St. Johns County, City of Jacksonville, City of Palatka, Pasco County, Putnam County and Volusia County for various locally administered housing and infrastructure recovery programs.
What did we learn? We learned that after a storm, many of the dedicated, hardworking individuals who are responsible for long-term recovery efforts at the local level are also doing several other jobs and wearing multiple hats. We found that many communities did not have the capacity to administer the enormous amount of funding coming to our state.
Accordingly, our team is providing ongoing technical assistance to these communities who are administering the funds locally. We have made our staff, as well as our contract teams, available for direct technical assistance at a minimum of biweekly. Making sure these funds are administered transparently, effectively and efficiently is important to us, and we are here to help these communities do just that.
Hurricane Irma (funds administered at the state level)
Then Hurricane Irma hit.
No one has forgotten the devastating impacts that Hurricane Irma left across our beautiful state. In the week leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, our agency began working in partnership with HUD to communicate the diverse needs our state would face and request flexibility in addressing those needs.
Communities told us they needed our help in administering this funding. Together, DEO worked with Florida’s hardest-hit communities to create the State Action Plan for Hurricane Irma funding.
We call the new state-administered CDBG-DR program, the “Rebuild Florida” program. Rebuild Florida connects eligible Floridians with federal disaster recovery funding, prioritizing most-impacted communities and the most vulnerable low-income individuals, including the elderly, those with disabilities and families with young children.
Funding provides impacted families with the opportunity to rebuild, repair or replace their damaged homes from disasters, as well as providing communities the ability to prepare for future storms. The Rebuild Florida program is organized into sub-programs depending on the type of work.
To date, our agency has awarded $31 million in awards to more than 900 Florida homeowners through the Rebuild Florida Housing Repair and Replacement Program. With our partners at Florida Housing Finance Corporation, we have made $140 million available for the construction of affordable workforce housing.
We have awarded more than $44 million in awards to Hurricane Irma impacted communities across the state to purchase homes damaged by the storm in high-risk flood areas through the Rebuild Florida Voluntary Home Buyout Program.
In addition, we have made more than $100 million available to communities through the Rebuild Florida Infrastructure and Workforce Recovery Training Programs, which we will be awarding very soon.
Additionally, in the coming months, we will be rolling out more resources for business recovery.
DEO’s will continue to release CDBG-DR funds for Hurricane Irma as quickly as possible.
To our friends in the Panhandle, money for Hurricane Michael is coming! While the state has not received the money yet, we are ready to act once we do. DEO will be there to make sure you have access to funds as efficiently, transparently and quickly as possible. We know you are suffering!
On Friday, Jan. 17, HUD filed the notice that the federal register is coming, and we anticipate having it any day. In May 2019, we launched a survey asking for your input on our State Action Plan for these dollars.
We have taken your input and started an initial plan.
In the coming weeks, we will announce regional workshops, webinars and other opportunities for community partners to learn more and provide input on the State Action Plan for Hurricane Michael recovery projects. We look forward to working together to develop this plan and bringing Rebuild Florida funds to the Panhandle.
While we have waited for the Federal Register for Hurricane Michael, DEO identified innovative ways to assist Florida Panhandle communities. Through a variety of programs, we have awarded more than $18 million in funding to communities impacted by Hurricane Michael for dislocated workers, infrastructure projects and workforce training.
Additionally, we provided $34 million in loans to more than 500 businesses who were impacted by Hurricane Michael through the Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan.
I would like to invite anyone who has any concerns about how CDBG-DR funding is being spent or how quickly it is being administered to contact me directly, Ken.Lawson@deo.myflorida.com.
I am happy to take anyone’s suggestions on how to do this more transparently, more efficiently and more effectively. The 57 people on the payroll are happy to take your suggestions as well.
We currently have five full-time positions open for anyone who wants to join our growing team.
If you want to be a part of rebuilding Florida and enhancing this important mission, apply here.
This is our mission. We are here to serve the people of Florida transparently, effectively and efficiently, and we will continue to do so until every Florida community has recovered.
Ken Lawson is the Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.