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Collier Commission town hall raises questions for fed agencies on housing, funding, deadlines

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Collier County Commissioners hosted a town hall Oct. 12 allowing residents to ask questions of representatives of FEMA, SBA and NFIP about disaster recovery and receiving assistance

For nearly three hours Tuesday night, Collier County residents asked questions and expressed their frustrations as they sought help recovering from Hurricane Ian’s catastrophic damage.

The queries were presented during a Collier County Commissioners town hall meeting that brought together representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

FEMA representative Sam Harvey encouraged anyone who has not yet done so to file an application with FEMA as a first step online, by calling 800-621-FEMA, or visiting a disaster recovery center, of which there are 17 throughout regions impacted by Ian. He explained that FEMA assistance comes from three pots of money: one for housing repair, one for contents and personal property and one for rental assistance for those displaced long term. The maximum one can receive from each of those programs is $37,900.

While the road to recovery may be long, Harvey urged impacted residents to apply now, as the deadline to be considered for an initial $700 in critical needs assistance ends Thursday, Oct. 13.

Ashley Jones with the Salvation Army asked Harvey about the deadline, noting that many of the people she’s been helping in Everglades City, Chokoloskee, and Jerome have been without power and didn’t even know about the deadline.

“The reasoning behind that is, at that point it’s been two weeks…with all the response partners and all the actions that have taken place, it’s harder to say that the needs are so critical past that point,” said Harvey.

“Now, that’s not to say that the state couldn’t request an extension to that. A lot of that would have to be based on feedback they receive from partners such as the Salvation Army and others to say, ‘hey look, there are still these enclaves where folks are still critical, the need is still critical.’ But that would have to be filtered back up through the county to the state so that they’re aware and they can potentially make that request.”

Only after a FEMA registration identification number is generated can someone apply for assistance through the SBA.

SBA representative Terrell Perry explained that the administration’s mission is to help business owners, nonprofits, homeowners and renters with recovery loans. “To date we have approved about 585 loans,” said Perry.

“That’s equivalent to about $31 million and we’re looking forward to approving many, many more loans. We have 101 personnel on the ground serving the immediate areas.”

She said about 304,000 business owners and individuals in counties covered by a federal disaster declaration have not yet sought assistance through the SBA.

“It’s very important to close that gap as much as possible so that people can, especially homeowners and renters, go forward with recovery through FEMA’s other needs assistance…. So don’t discount yourself for the opportunity to apply. We ask people to apply ASAP and many times we can grant a loan before the insurance company does their adjustment. So you can take those funds, repair or replace whatever was damaged or lost and then repay SBA once you receive your insurance settlement.”

SBA applications can be made online, or by visiting a DRC or BRC. The SBA also has a customer service line at 800-259-2955, but Perry notes residents can’t apply via phone.

Perry said businesses and non-profits could be eligible for loans of up to $2 million to help cover everything from physical repairs to equipment, inventory and even overhead costs like rent and salaries. Homeowners could get loans of up to $200,000 to rehab a primary residence and up to $40,000 for personal property. Renters could also be eligible to borrow up to $40,000 to repair or replace personal property.

Perry noted there’s a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) at Veterans Community Park as well as a Business Recovery Center (BRC) located at the Naples Players at 701 Fifth Avenue South. Business owners can also attend informational webinars for business owners Oct. 19 and Oct. 20 at 1 p.m.

“I can tell you that at present in Collier County more than 5,800 policy holders have filed claims. We have put over $6 million in advances out to those policyholders."<br/><br/>National Flood Insurance Program representative Russell Tinsley

NFIP representative Russell Tinsley also spoke at the town hall, noting that the program provides coverage for physical buildings and/or contents depending on what kind of coverage a policy holder has. Both types of coverage can have separate deductibles.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of instances already where people had building insurance and no contents insurance, and so I’ve sent them to our brethren at individual assistance (FEMA) to see how they could be helped that way,” said Tinsley.

“I can tell you that at present in Collier County more than 5,800 policy holders have filed claims. We have put over $6 million in advances out to those policyholders ... which is always good news for an adjuster because the adjusters don’t get paid until the claim’s settled.”

Tinsley said more than 95% of NFIP policies are for residential properties, but that they also can cover businesses.

Incoming Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) spoke briefly prior to the Q&A portion of the town hall. “I myself had four feet of water so I share your tragedy,” said Passidomo.

“I just came back from Tallahassee. We had a legislative budget commission meeting. We authorized additional funds to the governor for use in recovery.” Passidomo praised the work of staff at the state Emergency Operations Center and the Department of Transportation before addressing the region’s housing challenges.

“We know that we are looking at temporary housing in hotels and the like for those that do not have a place to go. We’re going to talk with FEMA about bringing in either some trailers or the like and maybe, I encourage the county commission and I will encourage the city council to relax some of the zoning rules to allow people to bring in mobile homes…to place on their property while they are in the process or rebuilding,” said Sen. Passidomo.

Collier Commissioner Burt Saunders responded that the county has already relaxed local rules to allow people to live in trailers on their properties while their homes are rehabilitated. He said doing so will require a permit, but that there’s no fee to obtain one.

Collier County Tenant Union representative Elizabeth Radi spoke passionately at the meeting about the urgent need for temporary housing.

“When it comes to hotels a lot of those people who can’t afford affordable housing are in those hotels already. We have no hotels. We have no inventory,” said Radi.

“We need trailers, we need trailer cities, and we need them fast. We have mold building up in these residents’ homes. It’s becoming unhealthy. And we need FEMA, we need our politicians, and we need everybody to act immediately, not down the road… These trailers are what is going to sustain our workforce.”

Her comments were not initially addressed, but after former Collier School Board candidate Jackie Keay brought up the lack of trailers later in the meeting, FEMA representative Sam Harvey responded.

“The trailers that are referenced fall into a FEMA program called Direct Housing,” said Harvey.

“The request for that has to come through the state of Florida to FEMA so that that process can mobilize…All of that is part of the state’s housing plan that they continue to develop. The reason that I don’t have an answer is because an answer has not been landed on yet. It’s not that folks aren’t aware of the program; It’s that they are trying to move forward in a holistic and equitable way. So, I know that it’s not immediate and it’s not intended to be an immediate solution.”

Harvey also fielded questions about FEMA assistance for households that may include undocumented immigrants.

“If there is at least one member of the household has a social security number, and it does not have to be the adult or the primary breadwinner or primary person of the household; if somebody in that household who was living there at the time of the disaster as a social security number that person is eligible.”

He notes that if the member of a household with a social security number is a child, they’ll need to list an adult co-applicant as well, even if that adult is not a U.S. citizen.

Harvey also said FEMA is working to bring in more personnel to help the region’s diverse language populations.

“We are continuing to bring down staff, Spanish speaking in particular was a very highly identified language need. So, as we continue to build out our footprint here, our disaster recovery center staff, our disaster survivor assistance, we’re going to continue to add into that mix additional folks who are able to translate both Spanish and we have a host of other languages that have been identified,” said Harvey.

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