U.S. House panel in South Florida hears complaints about Hurricane Ian recovery problems
Hurricane Ian caused widespread damage in southwest Florida in late September.

APTOPIX Tropical Weather Florida
'It’s Congress that’s as much responsible for any flaws in disaster relief as any agency, for sure.'

Chauncey Goss grew up on Sanibel Island and still lived there last Sept. 28, when Hurricane Ian showed up. It forced him to drive his family from their home with whatever they could carry in their car. He’s grateful they survived, he told a congressional panel in Fort Myers on Thursday.

Then came another ordeal, he said: navigating the federal disaster relief bureaucracy. The family applied for shelter in a motel and were directed to Alabama and then Brooksville, hours away from Southwest Florida. They were approved for a travel trailer to live in on their property in early December but were still waiting in late March for it to arrive.

Goss couldn’t get through on the phone to the federal bureaucracies, and officials on the ground weren’t always helpful — for example, demanding pdfs of key documents under post-disaster conditions but refusing to let him use their scanner. He still hasn’t been able to arrange a Small Business Administration disaster loan.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful at all, because I’m not,” Goss testified before the House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, which met Thursday in Fort Myers.

Still: “The senior leadership at (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and (the Small Business Administration), they need to be doing more than just putting boots on the ground here,” Goss said. “They need to put brains on the ground. They’ve got to put some people who can make some decisions so that they’re not just ticket takers sitting in an office somewhere saying, ‘I’m logging some hours.’”

Goss is a politically connected businessman who advises clients on federal budget matters and chairs the South Florida Water Management District. He’s the son of former Congressman and CIA director Porter Goss. He testified alongside representatives of key federal disaster-relief agencies and local officials from Lee County.

Bureaucratic problems

Byron Donalds, a Republican who represents the area in Congress and participated in the hearing, hears stories like that a lot, he said. Constituents complain federal agencies reject paperwork containing minor errors, forcing applicants to refile in a post-disaster atmosphere in which key documents may have been lost or destroyed.

“What needs to happen to stop that from occurring? Because when people are in disaster-recovery mode, they don’t have to check every dot,” Donalds said at one point.

Since Ian hit last year, the federal government has spent more than $5 billion on Ian recovery, including $896 million through FEMA to households and $504 million for emergency response. The SBA has provided $1.47 billion in disaster loans and the National Flood Insurance Program has paid $2.2 billion in claims to Hurricane Ian survivors, according to a government fact sheet.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman estimated the county lost 5,000 homes and 284 businesses with another 910 businesses suffering major damage, for an overall economic loss of $112 billion. The county lost every traffic signal, which can’t be fixed with federal dollars until the agencies inspect them.

Hamman praised the federal agencies for being quick to show up with disaster assistance teams and recovery centers, but complained they were slow to provide enough communication resources, inspectors and travel trailers, and that FEMA clashed with local officials on occasion. SBA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were slow to dispense money, he added.

“There were many moments across many different agencies where the regulatory hurdles, miscommunication and burdensome administrative requirements were too big and too rigid to meet the community’s needs. What was needed at that time was urgency and flexibility,” Hamman said.

Process vs. progress

Agencies lagged on removing 11 million cubic yards of debris, too, Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said, explaining how dispiriting it was for home and business owners to confront the wreckage of their lives every day. Ultimately, the state helped by authorizing local governments to begin removing it pending federal approval, he added.

“All of the federal agencies have great processes, but it prevents them at times from fulfilling their purpose,” Anderson said.

“And while their process is designed to help those who have been displaced from their homes, lost their loved ones, lost their business, whatever it might be, it often prevents them from fulfilling that purpose. And who is stuck there are those who are suffering losses.”

FEMA placed 1,335 travel trailers in the region, including 111 on Lee County’s barrier islands, but has been retiring them as the recovery progresses and people move into restored housing or replacement shelter. Sixteen trailers are left on the islands at this point, Thomas McCool, FEMA’s coordinator for Ian relief, said.

He acknowledged it took 45 days between approval of mobile housing for each resident and the trailers’ arrival, but said transitional shelter was available in hotels, even if spread across three states.

Donalds wanted to know why it takes so long to move trailers into place. McCool replied that his agency isn’t allowed to move them into special flood hazard zones — like the barrier islands, for example — in the interest of residents’ safety and environmental protection.

However, “if there is no practicable solution, we are allowed to put, after intense coordination with local building officials and flood-plain managers in each community, travel trailers or manufactured housing in special flood hazard areas,” McCool said. 533 landed in flood zones, he added.

‘Keep people safe’

“I don’t think we could have worked any faster. The bottom line is we have to keep people safe. We don’t want to put people at risk. And so, we did a very deliberate flood-risk analysis in every county that was affected,” McCool said.

Donalds also noted a considerable lag between approval of SBA loans and the money’s arrival in applicants’ pockets.

The system is modeled on regular bank construction loans, doled out depending on submission of documents, including building permits and insurance paperwork, said Fransisco Sánchez Jr., assistant administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience. His agency has been waiving those requirements, however, he added.

North Carolina Republican Chuck Edwards pointed to confusion over claims for duplicate benefits, which federal law doesn’t allow — say, drawing a $5,000 FEMA grant and also a $50,000 SBA loan.

Sánchez conceded the point. “Our goal is to put as much capital on the ground, in the hands of the disaster providers,” he said. Clarifying that the situation doesn’t constitute double-dipping would be “the single greatest thing that Congress could do right now.”

As for HUD, that agency will work with local officials in designating projects for community development block grants to repair infrastructure, said Marion McFadden, principal deputy assistant secretary for Community Planning and Development. Still, it can take a year and a half for the money to flow following a disaster. The agency is looking for ways to speed that up, she said.

Statutory authority

Another problem with the block grants program is that it lacks specific statutory authority or a guaranteed annual appropriation. In January, Congress gave the program nearly $100 billion, McFadden said. Permanent authorization would “remove uncertainty about what resources will be available to allow communities to better plan recovery activities,” she added.

By law, 70% of the block grants have to benefit low- and middle-income residents, she said, but the agency has granted waivers for infrastructure repairs that benefit everyone.

Despite the criticism, members of the subcommittee didn’t hector the federal officials, acknowledging the scale of the disaster and the response, and Congress’ own share in creating these problems.

“It’s Congress that’s as much responsible for any flaws in disaster relief as any agency, for sure,” Arizona Republican Andy Biggs said. He noted key disaster funding will run out before the end of the year, although President Joe Biden called Thursday for $12 billion in additional resources.

Chairman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, said he expects additional disaster funding to hit the House floor in September or October.

“We need to get better, but Congress does play a role in that,” Sessions said.


Michael Moline reporting; Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Earl Pitts "The Big Voice On The Right" American

    August 13, 2023 at 9:49 pm

    Its a shame we had to endure the Hurricane and its aftermath under a Democratic controlled govornment. Things would have been more business like and professional under Republican leadership.
    I’m not making alligations of the Democrats politicising the recovery its just that Democrats on the whole are more incompetant than Republicans.
    I’m not saying the Biden Crime Family made money off the Hurricane Ian recovery but……_____________……you think about it and fill in that blank yourself.
    Thank you America,

    • Catbird

      August 14, 2023 at 7:19 am

      Yea. Trump could have thrown the rich at sanibel toilet paper rather than paper towels!!

  • Independent

    August 13, 2023 at 11:13 pm

    It’s Republicans hoarding the funding in a circumstance that should be unbiased. We’re supposed to praise God in violation of our 1st amendment right not to proclaim a belief or allow the administration of such beliefs as given to us as a right in our American constitution. It’s all too conveniently ruined to blame a specific “party” affiliate but the reality is the assistance granted by the federal government is not being Well distributed because of political biased opportunities to blame… we have a GOVERNOR who’s done many great things in the state of Florida but remember what side he’s on before placating a “democratic” falter in our distribution of MUCH needed funding…

  • Independent

    August 13, 2023 at 11:28 pm

    Something has to give… billions of dollars for the ones who need it and it’s held by those who don’t with these time consuming restrictions on acceptability for housing and self sufficiency while these people go on building other friendly endeavors that people can’t even appreciate or engage in because they’ve been left behind. Resources said to exist actually don’t, they present their achievements while people try to figure out how to recover, decent people, clean people who just need a metaphorical boost to get back on their feet using financial assistance unearned by those who hold it but gifted by our federal government… regardless of political affiliates it would be great if the current commander and chief as well as our state governor came together to enforce some local oversight… maybe HUD, Sancap, local Housing authority should become acquainted with IRS… unsure what the answers are in ground level operations, seems like there’s more concern over the tech and media violating the 5th amendment right by being creative then taking any serious concern for those who need the assistance in real life…

  • Rudey

    August 14, 2023 at 7:17 am

    MAGA Floridians need to stop asking the government they hate and want to destroy for socialistic help when it is convenient to them. Go ask jfk or some of their other conspiracies. Heck DeathSantis took millions in COVID money he didn’t use for Covid. They think trump is still president. Go whine to him. Sanibel Island is pretty pricey. You. Never thought you would get hit ?

  • PeterH

    August 14, 2023 at 11:52 am

    When your property is hit by a hurricane or any other disaster you need to have sufficient personal funds to walk away and start life anew somewhere else. The Federal Government is not responsible to rebuild your home! Trailer parks inundated with flood water are particularly in a pickle because banks will not provide loans for a trailer replacement. New arrivals to Florida are well aware of sea level rise and the increasing intensity of storms. So getting wiped out by a hurricane should come as no surprise. The Federal Government FEMA is meant to be a temporary stop gap measure to get you housing and food until you can quickly relocate elsewhere! As an example hurricane Wilma hit Florida and condo insurance didn’t kick until 16 years later. Make your own plans be prepared be self sufficient be responsible!

  • Sonja Fitch

    August 20, 2023 at 3:22 am

    Omg The absolute ridiculous view of California storm is held by Desantis ! “I will help California but the hellwith Florida storm disaster! “. Desantis just wants to get him some “news airtime “!

  • ed bernard

    August 20, 2023 at 6:12 pm

    I dont think tax payers should be on the hook for what home owners policies should be covering …and i dont think we should rebuild in flood prone areas only to have to pay again the next time it floods …there is plenty of land west in florida

Comments are closed.


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