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Gov. DeSantis says Florida will appeal denial of FEMA aid for victims of January tornadoes in Lee and Charlotte counties

Governor Ron DeSantis was in Fort Myers Friday morning to address ongoing recovery efforts stemming from damage sustained when tornadoes touched down in Southwest Florida in January. Florida plans to appeal a denial of the state’s request for federal aid.

The National Weather Service confirms that the morning of Jan. 16, six tornadoes touched down in Southwest Florida including an EF-1 tornado in Charlotte County and an EF-2 tornado in South Fort Myers with winds of up to 118 miles per hour.

While no lives were lost, a damage assessment conducted by the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), Lee and Charlotte Counties, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Small Business Administration finds that 158 homes were destroyed or severely damaged and about 300 people were displaced. Lee County alone incurred an estimated $7.1 million in damages to residential properties and $1.2 million in damage to commercial properties.

On Jan. 21, Governor DeSantis issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency for Lee and Collier counties, in part, to facilitate a request for federal aid.

On Tuesday, FEMA, notified state officials that the agency was denying the request for individual assistance for victims, saying the severity and magnitude of the damage was not beyond the capabilities of state and local governments. Standing before damaged and destroyed homes in the Century 21 Mobile Home Community in the Iona region of South Fort Myers, DeSantis admonished the Biden administration over the denial suggesting the decision was politically motivated.

“These things should be above politics. When people have needs like this and...since Biden’s been president, it seems whatever they can do to thumb their nose at Florida, you know, they try to do it,” said DeSantis.

Iona resident Ed Murray also spoke at Friday’s press conference. “A unique feature of Cottage Point is my house is laying on its roof. It turned over. It completely turned over,” said Murray.

“For an hour or two I didn’t know where my daughter was, and for seven hours I couldn’t find my pup. It was frightening. The most frightening thing that has ever happened to me, and then to have some government agency tell you it’s not a tragedy? Twenty-two years of memories, your children, your pets, all in danger? This has got to be wrong. There is something definitely wrong with the logic in Washington D.C.”

DeSantis noted that the tornadoes disproportionately impacted the homes of vulnerable seniors.

“Almost all senior citizens. Eighty-four percent are receiving Social Security. (For) many of the residents, Social Security is their sole source of income,” said DeSantis.

“So, they’re still cleaning up debris. People are still trying to find stable housing. People have gotten into rental units. Some people are staying with friends, but it’s not that easy to just pick up and move to a new home.”

State Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said an appeal of FEMA’s denial for aid will be complete next week, but that the appeals process could take up to 30 days. Guthrie says the lack of federal aid has not hampered state and local recovery efforts – yet.

“We’re doing everything in our case to manage it, but now we’re at that point where we need federal support,” said Guthrie.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox that we have in the mantra of: locally executed, state managed, federally supported. So, we’re here today asking for the federal government’s support now.”

Guthrie noted that along with county agencies and local law enforcement, the response from the state has been extensive including Volunteer Florida, the state Department of Elder Affairs, the Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Department of Health, the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Guthrie said the state’s appeal of FEMA’s individual assistance denial will include new data as well.

“We’re going to go back and look now that people are now a month beyond this, what additional or cascading things have happened that are now, what we call unmet needs that would also apply to individual assistance? So, we’re going to be looking at: Now that we’re a month out, who had insurance claims denied? Who had other expendables that they now have to take care of? Those are the things that we’re going to add to our request in our appeal,” said Guthrie.

The Charlotte County Human Services Department is assisting with identifying available resources and programs and the Charlotte Community Foundation has been collecting and distributing monetary donations for those impacted by tornado damage. Residents can connect to services through the county’s Human Services Department. Donations for the Charlotte Community Foundation can be made here.

In Lee County, residents still in need of assistance can call 239-533-7900 or visit ionatornado@leegov.com. Staff with the Lee County Department of Community Development are available to guide impacted residents through the process of rebuilding. Residents are urged to contact the Community Development Department before beginning the rebuilding process to ensure any contractors hired are licensed and insured.

Severe storms that rolled through Southwest Florida the morning of Sunday, Jan. 16 also produced an EF-0 tornado that touched down in Cape Coral between Trafalgar Parkway and Pine Island Road, causing no reported injuries and only minimal damage.

Another tornado that morning in Collier County caused a semi tractor-trailer to flip on its side temporarily blocking westbound traffic on I-75.