It’s been a month since Hurricane Ian devastated parts of southwest Florida. Now, massive multi-million dollar cleanup contracts are creating new storms in the wake of the Category 4 storm.
Contractors who remove debris and perform post-storm repairs are vying for local government contracts that could be worth tens of millions in tax dollars. The conflict offers a preview of the likely tussle over local, state and federal funds that will be distributed in the coming months to help Southwest Florida get back on its feet.
These include the recent controversial expansion of a contract to remove storm debris on land that had been put out to bid long before the hurricane. Coincidentally, the contract was awarded to Crowder-Gulf Joint Venture a few days after Ian made landfall in the county’s Cayo Costa National Park on September 28.
In response to the hurricane’s extensive damage, county officials expanded the agreement’s scope on Oct. 2 to include waterways and private property.
Quickly disposing of downed trees, blown shingles, and ripped drywall is one of the hardest but most important parts of hurricane recovery. County officials want to get the job done quickly, since municipalities receive direct payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the cost of debris collected within 60 days of a storm. Officials estimate Lee County has 1.8 million cubic yards of storm debris.
“We’re running into some very important timelines,” Lee County Sheriff Ray Sandelli said at a recent meeting.
But Bart Smith, an attorney for one of the contractors who lost the bid to Crowder-Gulf Joint Venture, told Lee County commissioners that not putting the extra work involved in expanding the contract out to bid put them at risk of a “clawback.” which is when FEMA takes back money previously awarded.
“Decisions are always made after a storm, and these are emergencies, but you have to understand that hindsight is 20-20 and FEMA, when they do all these refunds years later and review it and review it and then tell you you have to give money back, there are consequences,” Smith said.
Daniella Sanabria, an attorney for another rival contractor, also warned commissioners of possible withdrawal, saying the expansion of the debris removal contract to include waterways and private property was anticompetitive.
“Given Hurricane Ian, this is a huge addition to the scope of the deal, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sanabria said. “Inappropriate and non-competitive awards are being made.”
The federal government regularly seizes back disaster funds that it believes have been improperly distributed or when procedures were not properly followed. Federal agencies sought to claw back $73 million from more than 1,800 New Jersey households that received federal disaster funds from Superstorm Sandy a decade ago. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, FEMA requested $4.3 million in withdrawals from Lake Worth Beach, Florida.
Officials have estimated Ian’s damage in Florida and North Carolina at between $40 billion and $70 billion, making it among the costliest storms to hit the United States. At least 119 deaths in Florida can be attributed to the storm.
Lee County Executive Roger Desjarlais dismissed the complaints, saying vendors who don’t get a piece of the pie will try to “muddy the waters” because so much money is at stake in hurricane cleanup efforts.
“Every time the politics of disaster take over at some point because some of these companies are making so much money, millions of dollars,” Desjarlais said.
Because the money provided for cleanup is so large, it can be an easy target for corruption. In Bay County, Florida, where Category 5 storm Hurricane Michael made landfall in 2018, 10 businessmen and high-ranking officials from the city of Lynn Haven were charged with theft or fraud for allegedly overbilling or billing for cleanup work. was never moved. Federal prosecutors have accepted guilty pleas from seven of the 10 defendants.
Lee County Waste Director Douglass Whitehead said the new, expanded contract with Crowder is cheaper per truckload than the old contract, which had inflation-adjusted costs. He said extending an agreement already in place provides continuity in an emergency.
But two of the five commissioners said no to the deal when it was voted on last week.
“I’m going to vote against the proposal,” Commissioner Brian Hamman said at the time. “I don’t feel good about how it’s gone down.”
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