What Changes in FEMA’s Funding Formula Means for Northeast Florida

Folio Weekly | September 23, 2004
As the eye of Ivan roared toward the Panhandle at around 8 p.m. on Sept. 16, a meteorologist from the National Hurricane Center in Miami called Mike Sigler. The waves hitting Pensacola Beach would be 30 feet high at the climax of the storm, the meteorologist warned. Sigler should leave.

Sigler didn’t leave. He couldn’t. By the time the meteorologist telephoned, the water around his home — a dome-shaped structure supposed to be able to withstand 300-mph winds — was already four feet deep. The entire beach was under water. The window of opportunity to flee the island had passed eight hours earlier.

Sigler spent the hurricane holed up with a news crew from NBC in a home designed to be storm-proof. The curved shape of the walls was

engineered to soften the brunt of waves, and features on the ground floor of the building, like the staircase, were built to wash away. A little over a year after the dome’s completion, Ivan was to be its ultimate test.

Still, when Sigler hung up the telephone, he was worried. The meteorologist said the waves hitting the dome would probably be 10 to 18 feet high. "We kind of braced ourselves," Sigler says. "There were no lights. The wind was just blowing." Sigler told the Associated Press that he "could hear pieces of other housing breaking up and smashing into the house" as neighbors’ homes were swept away.

At daylight, the crew went outside to look around. Eight homes to the east had washed out to sea; for two blocks to the west, houses were reduced to kindling. "We woke in the morning to see the carnage," Sigler says. "We couldn’t believe what we were looking at."

The dome, however, remained, and may emerge as the star of Florida’s 2004 hurricane season. Built with a $250,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the dome illustrates the security innovative design can offer shore dwellers. The body of the dome is formed from a single slab of concrete laid over five miles’ worth of reinforced steel bar. The whole thing is covered in waterproof foam. Although the dome looks delicate, a gleaming oblong hovering over the beach, it is anchored by 16 pilings driven 17 feet into the sand and is effectively wind-and-flood proof.

Right now, there are a smattering of such domes in Florida, including one under construction in Duval County, but Sigler’s experience will likely inspire more. Following this brutal hurricane season, Florida will receive an unprecedented amount of grant money to make the state more disaster-proof. After each disaster, FEMA allocates 7.5 percent of the money the agency spent helping disaster victims to projects that would lessen the impact of future disasters. The dome, which replaced a home that had been damaged by three hurricanes, was one such project.

Some state emergency management officials estimate that FEMA will be spending $200 million on these post-disaster mitigation projects in Florida in the next few years. The mitigation dollars might be spent to attach hurricane shutters to a hospital, to elevate an older home above the floodplain, or to improve stormwater runoff. (Florida would’ve had even more money at its disposal if Bush hadn’t cut the mitigation dollars a community can receive following a disaster. Until this year, FEMA provided mitigation grants for up to 15 percent of the dollars the agency spent in an area. This year, that figure was cut in half.)

If Florida had flexibility in spending the money it will receive, it could become a model of statewide disaster mitigation and an example of how FEMA money can transform a disaster-prone landscape. However, Florida will be likely be hamstrung by the geography of its disasters, and the piecemeal way in which disaster grants are awarded. The amount of money FEMA spent in a county giving aid to victims will determine the size of the FEMA mitigation grants in that county. Hurricane Andrew, for instance, produced $41 million in mitigation aid for Dade County. In contrast, Duval County has received a paltry $20,500 in mitigation dollars (after Tropical Storm Josephine in 1996), money the county used to install storm shutters on an emergency facility in Jacksonville Beach. Jacksonville also applied for money for more shutters on the beach following an ice storm in 2002, but the city’s emergency operations center could not provide additional information by press time.

Because virtually all of Florida is vulnerable to hurricanes — not just places that have already been hit — FEMA’s fund disbursal has sparked criticism. The problem won’t be as pronounced after this storm season, since all but a handful of counties have been declared federal disaster areas. Additional money will be available through pre-mitigation grants, which aren’t tied to specific disasters and are awarded competitively. Florida received slightly more than $18 million of these grants in 2004, of $150 million available annually, according to Leroy Thompson, state mitigation officer for the division of emergency management. "Under pre-disaster mitigation, the Panhandle doesn’t have to wait for its Andrew," said Thompson a week before Ivan hit. "They can put it together under mitigation. In the past you couldn’t do that. You had to wait until disaster struck."

The money Florida will receive pales in comparison to the dollars being spent on homeland security. Compared to the $18 million in pre-disaster mitigation, the state received more than $90 million from FEMA for homeland security. Duval County won’t receive any pre-disaster money this year because the county did not apply, according to the county’s emergency management staff. But while it isn’t getting money to prepare for hurricanes, it is getting plenty of money to prepare for Osama. Since 2001, Duval County has received $26.5 million from a variety of federal sources for domestic security purposes. This year, the county received $6.6 million alone from the Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. The county received $1.8 million for its urban search-and-rescue team this year, $333,000 to beef up security at the Sheriff’s Office and at area schools, and $500,000 to conduct training to prepare for a terrorist attack or weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately for area residents, the kind of mass destruction that repeatedly threatened Northeast Florida in recent weeks has more to do with Mother Nature than al Qaeda — a reality that federal policy can do little to change.

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