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10 years later, Tampa to refund FEMA $562,000 in Hurricane Frances aid

TAMPA — It's been nearly 10 years since Tropical Storm Frances scraped across the Tampa Bay area, dumping 6 inches of rain and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

In Tampa, students returned to school and evacuees went home within days. Though cleanup and repairs took longer, the city finished those jobs by April 2005.

But the paperwork?

It's not done yet.

On Thursday, the Tampa City Council will consider paying $561,655 back to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm recovery expenses not covered by FEMA rules. The vote is the latest step in a process to close out a series of storm-related grants that, at one point, had city officials waiting two years for a reply from FEMA.

And it's not unusual for this kind of wrap-up to take this long to complete.

"It's actually very common," said Aaron Gallaher, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which works with FEMA on the close-outs. Like Tampa, other Florida communities are still working with reviewers examining grants from 2004. It took 16½ years to close out claims from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Frances was the second of four hurricanes to hit Florida during the summer of 2004, making landfall during the Labor Day weekend, just three weeks after Hurricane Charley. In all, it caused seven deaths and an estimated $9 billion in damage inside and outside the United States.

In Tampa, the remnants of the hurricane sent a 4- to 6-foot storm surge over seawalls, swamping Bayshore Boulevard, flooding streets and swelling the Hillsborough River over its banks into downtown and West Tampa.

Frances left behind more than 119,000 cubic yards of debris in the city. It also saturated the ground, causing paved roads to cave in and break water and sewer pipes buried below. The city saw 257 cave-ins after Frances and Tropical Storm Jeanne — more than triple the number during the previous year — on roads that included Azeele Street, W Cypress Street and N Boulevard.

In the aftermath, Tampa received $6.3 million in storm relief aid: $4.9 million from FEMA, nearly $1.3 million from the Federal Highway Administration and about $99,000 from the state of Florida.

As part of the close-out, FEMA and the Florida Division of Emergency Management went back and examined the city's expenses and the documentation to support them.

That takes time. Not only is the process painstaking — the close-out team examined 4,649 tickets for dump-truck loads of storm debris hauled to three city disposal sites — but "sometimes they come multiple times because they do have turnover from time to time," Tampa chief accountant Lee Huffstutler said.

By 2011, seven years after the storm, FEMA had determined that Tampa should repay part of the grant money in two areas: debris removal and infrastructure repair due to cave-ins.

Reviewers cited various reasons for not allowing various expenses. With debris disposal, for example, a small percentage of dump tickets were missing or inaccurate. But in each area, officials said Tampa received storm relief money from both FEMA and the Federal Highway Administration. Double payments were not allowed.

After the 2011 determination, more discussion followed. The city appealed FEMA's decision to demand a refund of money used to repair cave-ins.

"It seems to us whether it's a federal highway or not, if the pipes underneath the road are damaged FEMA should pay for those," Huffstutler said, "because the Federal Highway Administration is not going to pay for pipes underneath the road. They're only going to pay for the road."

In April, City Hall received an invoice from the state instructing the city to pay the reimbursement, including the amount under appeal.

If the City Council approves the reimbursement, Tampa's solid waste department would repay $369,814 and the waste water department would repay $196,507, with much smaller amounts coming from the water department and the city's general fund. In all, the reimbursement amounts to less than 9 percent of the total Tampa received for storm relief.

While lengthy, the reconciliation of expenses has taken place away from the public eye. On Tuesday, Tampa resident David Magliano had no idea officials were still wrangling over a $133,997 repair job along N Boulevard in front of his home in Forest Hills.

In one way, Magliano said, the duration of the process seems like "one of those stereotypical government" tales.

But he's glad officials did the work first and haggled over the money later — and not the other way around.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

10 years later, Tampa to refund FEMA $562,000 in Hurricane Frances aid 07/15/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 11:20am]
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