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Editorial | FEMA muddies recovery waters

By Staff | Apr 4, 2024

Media Toolkit – FEMA Insurance Rating

The aftermath of Hurricane Ian keeps coming in waves throughout Lee County.

FEMA has now opened the floodgates to much higher insurance premiums for property owners hoping to protect their homes and businesses through what is predicted to be another active storm season.

Citing … “the large amount of unpermitted work, lack of documentation, and failure to properly monitor activity in special flood hazard areas, including substantial damage compliance,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency has “retrograded” its Community Rating System grade for unincorporated Lee and four of its municipalities, including the city of Cape Coral and the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

FEMA found that of Lee County’s 590 properties that incurred substantial damage; 25% had unpermitted work.

Of Cape Coral’s 238, 23% had unpermitted work; of Fort Myers Beach’s 105, 21% had unpermitted work with Bonita Springs and Estero, hitting 50% and 58% respectively

Only Sanibel and Fort Myers were unaffected, retaining a grade of 5 and so a 25% discount on premiums.

What does this mean?

It means that — as if the billions of dollars in losses suffered in storm damage; the hundreds of millions still outstanding as insurance companies continue their dance of whether their wind policies or the fed’s flood policies have to ante up reimbursements; and skyrocketing homeowners premiums are not enough — most Lee Countians are going to see a 25% hike in flood insurance costs if FEMA’s determination stands.

Local officials, who called out the agency’s methodology and processes this week, say it should not.

So do our federal and state representatives.

Congressman Byron Donalds, joined by U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, and U.S senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, wrote a letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell that urges a reversal of the recent decision.

Some background:

After months of working with the federal agency to satisfy the permitting issues raised, Lee County and municipal officials got the word Thursday that FEMA was going to “retrograde” the respective rating classifications downward, effectively yanking discounts entirely by awarding a grade of 10 — the lowest possible — which offers zip-zero-nada in credits, each of which is worth a 5% discount on premium amounts for National Flood Insurance Program policies.

About 699,000 residents live in areas that will be impacted by the FEMA decision, county officials said, adding the 25% discount saves taxpayers a collective $14 million to $17 million annually in unincorporated Lee County alone.

In Cape Coral, there are 27,673 NFIP policies holders, representing $8 billion in coverage. The 25% discount which has been awarded to the city since 1995 represents an annual savings of $7-$8 million.

Given that FEMA made significant changes to local flood maps in 2022, placing many more properties within newly designated high-risk areas, the financial burden on property owners throughout Lee County is going to be greater.

Much greater.

FEMA’s unilateral decision that its standards have not been met is set to take effect Oct. 1.

But it won’t if Lee County and city officials prevail in their quest to either satisfy the agency or prove that they, in fact, have.

Those officials called FEMA out this week, saying they have been working diligently with the agency to provide requested post-storm information and documentation requested for its Community Rating System audit.

Those officials also cried foul as did the Town of Fort Myers Beach, saying that FEMA — which had sent letters in June of what could happen if local entities did not work closely to assure compliance — not only did not provide notice it would effectively eliminate any discounts but actually notified local governments via phone calls with no documents to be immediately provided to substantiate the retrograde ratings.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to grant “any and all tools” needed by county staff to investigate and work to address the FEMA determination.

Cape Coral City Council and staff vowed Wednesday to “fight the fight,” saying they had the support of Congressman Donalds and State Rep. Mike Giallombardo.

Contesting FEMA’s decision is the right thing to do.

Especially since documentation provided shows a concerted effort by the county and city alike to comply with FEMA queries.

Cape Coral City Manager Michael Ilczyszyn provided a meticulously detailed report before Council Wednesday night.

Beginning with Ian’s Sept. 28, 2022, landfall, the city began its recovery efforts, requesting 20 fire inspectors for damage assessments of commercial and residential buildings getting approval the same day.

The city then began sending out emails to “thousands of residents regarding floodplain management and related concerns,” a communication effort that continued for months through emails, letters, door hangers, yard signs, a televised town hall meeting and other means, according to Mr. Ilczyszyn’s report.

Requests for inspectors also continued with 10 requested Oct. 2 and 20 more on Oct. 7.

The city’s first face-to-face with FEMA, meanwhile, was Oct. 18 regarding the need for “substantial damage assessments,” the foundation upon which FEMA would decide how the local CRS ratings would be determined post-storm.

Again, the city immediately notified residents, sending out a release to media outlets on Oct. 21; advised residents with homes older than 1981 not to make repairs until Dec. 1; and that FEMA’s 50% rule required buildings with that much damage to be rebuilt consistent with current flood elevations. The city also established an informational web page.

The informational process continued throughout the recovery effort, with date-of-action extensively documented as FEMA continued its efforts to assure compliance through a process that began in the Cape with FEMA’s list of 538 damaged properties. The number was brought to 238 which the city maintains FEMA itself, in January, had winnowed to 54 as city staff was able to resolve 184 of the 238 in question.

Of the remaining 54, the city says it still is working “to determine whether or not any violations exist under NFIP regulations.”

FEMA’s finding of 23% “unpermitted work” in Cape Coral is a result of the agency categorizing all of those 54 properties as being out of compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program.

Government processes — and government math — never cease to amaze us but this one does dumbfound us in light of the devastating damage Lee County endured and the compliance efforts taken.

We agree: County and Cape officials who vow to “fight the fight” are right to contest FEMA’s finding.

A system that allows 54 Cape Coral properties among the 100,056 residential structures in the city to result in a total loss of discount — predicated also on other city efforts — should be questioned.

Questioned hard.

Breeze editorial