ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars meant to help the victims of Hurricane Irma, a storm that hit the state in 2017. 8 On Your Side’s Mahsa Saeidi has been investigating and found that years of delays in doling out that aid money are causing a whole new set of problems for people battered by the storm.
You might think that more than three years after Hurricane Irma, disaster aid would go to people who need it, like Joshlyn Parker of St. Petersburg. Parker is facing major fines, all due to storm damage the state promised to fix.
The black tarp covering Parker’s roof is a city code violation.
“It’s loose in a lot of areas,” she said.
A remnant of Hurricane Irma, the tarp is the only thing keeping the rain out of Parker’s home.
Now, years after the storm, St. Petersburg Codes Compliance wants the tarp removed. But Parker is still waiting for the state, through a disaster aid program called “Rebuild Florida,” to fix her roof.
“You have no idea when they’re actually going to fix the roof?” Investigator Mahsa Saeidi asked.
“No, no,” Parker replied.
Parker applied to the program in 2019. The following summer, she was told her roof would be fixed because she qualified for the aid.
But as of this week, Parker and other Irma victims who 8 On Your Side has profiled all still wait.
“The money is there but nobody is taking it and helping the people,” Parker said. “If you create a program, follow through.”
The “Rebuild Florida” program is overseen by Dane Eagle, the head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
We discovered that more than 3,900 Floridians qualified to have their storm-damaged homes rebuilt or replaced. But during a two-year span, 290 projects – or less than one in 10 – were completed.
When we couldn’t get answers about the program’s pace from Mr. Eagle, we went to the man in charge – Gov. Ron DeSantis.
8 On Your Side initially spoke with Gov. DeSantis during a news conference in Tampa on Dec. 16, 2020.
“So, we were not happy with the pace of some of the hurricane relief money and that was one of the things when Dane Eagle took over, I told him we need to speed it up, you need to get the money out the door,” said Gov. DeSantis.
But 47 days after that exchange with Gov. DeSantis, multiple storm victims told 8 On Your Side nothing had changed.
“Forty-seven days ago, you told me that you were not happy with the pace of ‘Rebuild Florida,’ you’ve instructed Dane Eagle to fix this,” Saeidi told the governor. “I’m still waiting to hear DEO’s plan. So my question for you today, specifically, what is Florida doing to speed up this process, and help these Irma victims?”
“Did you see my press conference on Friday, in Key Largo? Yea. We announced a hundred million dollars so it’s great, we can get you that information,” Gov. DeSantis said on Jan. 27, 2021 in Sun City Center.
8 On Your Side followed up asking what specifically was being done and if they were hiring more people.
“We announced a huge announcement, I can get you that information. It’s very good. The people were very happy,” Gov. DeSantis said.
The “Rebuild Florida” applicants 8 On Your Side has spoken with are not happy.
During the announcement in Key Largo on Jan. 22, 2021, Gov. DeSantis and Director Eagle announced $100 million in investments in infrastructure and hardening projects for the state. The money went to 24 communities across the state.
“‘Rebuild Florida,’ just to remind people, is a long-term recovery program,” said Gov. DeSantis. “We’ve got to build back stronger than before, that’s what this investment is all about.”
The money released will help cities install generators, build emergency shelters, protect homes against storm surge and more.
While great, Parker says that won’t help homeowners like her get the tarp off her roof.
“I’ve been cited, twice, for violation of having the tarp on there because it’s been almost two years,” she said.
Parker wants “Rebuild Florida” to fix her roof before the next rain season comes.
“It comes down in any spot,” she told us. “So that’s why I have to be home when the weather is bad so I can know where to put stuff to catch the water.”
To date, Gov. DeSantis hasn’t explained what’s being done to process claims faster. Director Eagle has declined to speak with 8 On Your Side as well.
8 On Your Side did speak with the City of St. Petersburg about Parker’s situation. Parker has a code enforcement hearing Wednesday morning. We’re told no action will be taken against her at that time.
“The Code Enforcement Board is there to determine if a violation exists,” said St. Petersburg Communications Director Benjamin Kirby, “but more importantly to provide the homeowner an opportunity to explain the specifics of their situation so the Board can grant additional time based on the circumstances.”
8 On Your Side will keep fighting for storm victims.