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Lee County, FEMA at odds over compliance to Hurricane Ian rebuilding work, documentation

Hurricane Ian damage in Matlacha.

A flood insurance issue that could end up costing millions for residents in unincorporated Lee County and several of the county's cities will be aired Tuesday at the Board of County Commissioners meeting.

At stake is federal flood insurance community ratings in unincorporated Lee County and multiple municipalities in the county.

FEMA confirmed Monday that unpermitted work, lack of documentation, and failure to properly monitor the rebuilding of properties in flood hazard areas in the post-Hurricane Ian world is why the federal government has chosen to significantly downgrade those ratings.

That means federal flood insurance policy holders — there are more than 51,000 in unincorporated Lee County alone — will lose their 25 percent discounts on flood insurance premiums come Oct. 1. Some 64,000 policy holders in Bonita Springs, Estero and Cape Coral will also no longer quality for discounts until possibly spring 2026.

The matter will be discussed in further detail when the Lee County Board of County Commissioners meet for their regular board meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

An entry under "County Manager Items" on the meeting agenda lists "FEMA / National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Update."

Betsy Clayton, spokeswoman for Lee County, said the county’s work in FEMA’s Community Rating System has resulted in saving taxpayers a collective $14 million to $17 million annually in unincorporated Lee County alone.

“When considering the cities within Lee County, the savings is in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Clayton.

The City of Sanibel and Fort Myers retained its good-standing and discounts.

Lee County has been in good standing for 17 years. Chief among its complaints, leaders in Lee and other municipalities claim, was the lack of notice before Thursday’s phone calls when they were informed of the decision.

However, a series of letters from FEMA obtained by WGCU, which were sent to county officials in 2023, suggest otherwise.



Lee County Commissioner Mike Greenwell
Lee County
Special to WGCU
Lee County Commissioner Mike Greenwell

“For the federal government to have made this decision without any prior discussions seems punitive,” said Lee Board of County Commission Chairman Mike Greenwell. “Ian was the third costliest hurricane to hit the United States, and many of our residents are still reeling financially from its impacts.”

Category 5 Hurricane Ian caused catastrophic damage on Lee’s barrier island, inland and throughout downtown Fort Myers and Cape Coral.

One of FEMA’s responsibilities following a disaster is to ensure communities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program adopt and enforce floodplain management regulations to reduce impacts from flooding, that includes ensuring structures are rebuilt to withstand future storms.

A major down-grade in ratings such as what Lee County and the other municipalities received, is the first step in a process that could result in being kicked out of the program all together. That could mean no more new policies and future disaster assistance to governments could be limited.

Key among the rules to participate is following the 50 percent rule. Generally speaking, if a storm causes damages worth at least 50 percent of the value of property, deeming the property significantly damaged -- then the property must be torn down and rebuilt to the most up-to-date building code standards. That’s a very costly proposition and includes retrofitting and elevating to one foot above the federal flood elevation zones.

The government maintains this rule to not only try and safe-guard properties from future and stronger storms, but it is also a safe-guard to the government from having to foot the bill each time disaster strikes and there is damage to homes not up to current flood and building codes.

In the post-Ian world, how municipalities interpret this rule varies. And now communities are discovering the results of varied interpretations. In the 18 months since Ian there have been several site visits from FEMA.

The FEMA letters said:

  • In February 2023, FEMA took exception with new property evaluations following the hurricane and warned that community ratings that allow for discounts could be in jeopardy. FEMA later said it would sit down with Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell’s Office to sort out its post-hurricane evaluations.
  • In June, the county was set another letter in which FEMA voiced concerns that home inspections — to determine if the 50 % rule applies — were not being done proactively, rather only when requested by a building owner at the time a permit is requested.

FEMA had this to say in its June follow-up letter: “When communities wait for homeowners to apply for permits, they risk losing opportunity to bring structures into compliance as not all homeowners apply for proper permits. For those that do obtain the proper permits, not having substantial damage determination done in advance can slow down their recovery as they have begun planning their repairs without knowledge they may have to address substantial damage requirements including elevation of the first finished floor to or above regulatory flood elevation.”

FEMA requested a list of demolition permits, copies of permits, elevation certificates, among other things.

  • In December, FEMA sent the county another letter saying that a two-person inspection team discovered 590 different sites where there was recent and on-going rebuilding that did not have permitted documentation. It asked for numerous documentation and gave the county until mid-January to comply.

Clayton, the spokeswoman for the county, maintains the county did comply and in a timely manner.
FEMA spokeswoman Lea Crager had this to say Monday: “We are committed to helping these communities take appropriate remediation actions to participate in the Community Rating System again and work towards future policy discounts.”

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