TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Within days of Ian blasting Southwest Florida and several Bay Area communities from Sarasota to Polk County, 3,500 Federal Emergency Management Agency employees were said to be in Florida, ready to help.
And as of early this week, FEMA had provided $150 million in grants to more than 101,000 Florida families.
There was also a show of unity involving political opposites Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden, a mere two weeks after their most recent sparring match.
“I don’t hear outrage about the criminal aliens,” DeSantis had said following criticism about the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard.
Two chartered planes had flown 48 Venezuelans from Texas, into Florida and up to the island off Massachusetts at a taxpayer cost of $615,000.
A week later, after a planned but canceled flight to Biden’s home state, the president offered a sarcastic invitation to Florida’s governor.
“He should come visit,” Biden said with a grin. “We have a beautiful shoreline.”
But when it comes to helping Florida, Tampa Bay area Democrat Rep. Kathy Castor is confident the political foes will work together.
“This is an emergency situation and when you have a storm like Hurricane Ian, a monster storm, the deadliest in the modern era, we all have to put aside politics,” Castor said. “We all have to hold them accountable to make sure they do that.”
Even without the political dynamic, FEMA has its own issues. A January 2022 investigation by congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed agency issues with “staffing shortages” and “workforce qualifications.”
Christopher Currie, the Director of Homeland Security and Justice U.S. GAO, said some FEMA positions can be spread thin as the agency covers disasters in multiple states.
“They might be good on the number of people on the team that go out door to door and work with different disaster survivors but they might be short engineers to work on bigger projects,” Currie said.
Currie also said sometimes the shortfalls show up later during the recovery process.
“One thought would involve how to the rebuild the barrier islands [off Lee County,]” Currie said. “How are they going to handle that?”
There are also concerns about spending disaster relief money efficiently without fraud, involving not only FEMA but also the Small Business Administration which has been rocked by billions of dollars in fraud stolen during the COVID-19 crisis.
8 on Your Side uncovered one scheme that victimized dozens of Bay Area residents who were said to own farms that didn’t exist.
“I’ve lived here nearly 50 years and never picked up a hoe,” Tampa resident William Dreyer said at the time of the story.
Castor said while she is confident in the agencies’ efficacy, accountability is important.
“These funds are not unlimited. They’re intended for people who are in dire straits and Congress has a very important oversight role to hold the administration accountable when these funds are not used as they should,” Castor said.
If you are aware of any delays or fraud connected to help for Hurricane Ian, please contact WFLA’s Walt Buteau.