As recovery efforts begin in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, local contractors are already engaged in a battle for government contracts that could be worth tens of millions of dollars. With large sums of money at stake, these companies are eager to secure contracts for debris removal and post-storm repairs. The competition is fierce, and the skirmishes offer a preview of the fights that will likely erupt over local, state and federal funds in the coming months. As southwest Florida works to get back on its feet, the battle for government contracts is sure to intensify. With so much money at stake, the fight for relief funds is likely to be fierce.
New Tempests in The Category 4 Storm's Wake
Disposing quickly of downed trees, blown-off roof shingles, and shredded drywall is one of the most challenging but important parts of hurricane recovery. County officials want to get the job done speedily since local governments get direct payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the cost of debris picked up within 60 days of a storm. Officials estimate Lee County has 1.8 million cubic yards of storm debris.
While some argue that the county should take its time in order to ensure that all of the debris is properly disposed of, others believe that the quicker the job is done, the better. Ultimately, it is up to county officials to decide how to proceed. However, one thing is certain: disposing of such a large amount of debris will be no easy task.
"We are bumping up against some very important timelines," Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli said at a recent meeting.
Bart Smith, an attorney for one of the contractors that lost the bid to Crowder-Gulf Joint Venture, warned Lee County commissioners that not putting the extra work contained in the contract's expansion out to bid put them at risk of a "clawback." A clawback is when FEMA takes back previously awarded money. Smith said that the county should have put the expanded work out to bid so that his client could have had a chance to compete for the work.
"Decisions are always made after storms, and these are emergencies, but you have to understand that hindsight is 20-20 and FEMA, when they do all these reimbursements years later and review it and audit it and then tell you you have to give the money back, there are ramifications," Smith said.
The federal government has a long history of clawing back disaster relief money from state and local governments. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) attempted to take back $73 million from more than 1,800 New Jersey households that had received federal disaster relief funds. Similarly, after Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017, FEMA claimed $4.3 million in clawbacks from Lake Worth Beach.
These examples illustrate the often-confusing and opaque nature of the federal government's disaster relief efforts. While state and local governments are often quick to request federal assistance in the aftermath of a major disaster, they may not be aware of the potential for the money to be clawed back by the feds.
Officials have estimated the damage caused by Ian in Florida and North Carolina at anywhere from $40 billion to $70 billion, making it among the costliest storms ever to hit the U.S. At least 118 deaths in Florida are attributable to the storm.
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