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FEMA: 'We're Moving As Fast As We Can'

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Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Meida
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Update: 11 a.m. Oct. 2

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved Individual Assistance for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties following the impact of Hurricane Sally.Estimates are in for both public and private property damaged by Hurricane Sally in Escambia County, with FEMA crews back in the area going through their paces.

Original story:

While not yet finalized, the damage assessments place Sally’s price tag at around $309 million as of Tuesday. FEMA already has earmarked money to repair public facilities, but money for individual property owners remains in limbo. But hopefully not for long, says Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley.

“The FEMA coordinating officer came by to visit; and we had a conversation about the support that they’re here to provide us, hopefully with a declaration of individual assistance,” said Gilley. “They’re ready to go; if we can get the declaration out of the federal government.”

It took about 10 days after Hurricane Ivan to get some federal declarations, so Gilley is hesitant to accuse FEMA of dragging its feet.

“Part of the issue is that there are, I believe, 13 counties that are involved in the Panhandle of Florida with this particular declaration,” Gilley said. “Some of the counties...FEMA has not gotten into those counties yet to do the assessments.”

And Gilley’s quick to add that Escambia already has caught one break – being separated out for the public assistance declaration in all categories.

“That’s not necessarily how FEMA and the state [Department of Emergency Management] would normally do that, when you have so many counties in one declaration,” said Gilley. “You would try to get all of them to get the same designation at the same time.”

“The preliminary damage assessment teams work in coordination with local emergency management authorities and the state,” said FEMA spokesman Dave Mace. “Typically a team would be embedded with a local emergency management person, and a person from the state. And we simply go where the locals tell us to go.”

Meanwhile, three FEMA Mobile Registration Intake Centers (MRICs) opened this week in Alabama for Hurricane Sally survivors in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile counties. That is said to not be sitting well with victims in Florida.

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Credit wuwf.org
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Escambia Co. Administrator Janice Gilley.

“We are in the assessment phase of the process right now [in Florida], and we are moving as fast as we can,” said Mace. “We certainly understand how important it is for the recovery to begin the impacted area. We’re working as hard as we can to move this process along.”

The preliminary assessments are beginning roughly two weeks after Sally came through. Mace says there’s no set timeline to a declaration, because of many factors of involved related to the old adage: “No two hurricanes are alike.”

“The amount of damage in the area and how accessible it is – if there are roads that are out, power lines down – we have to wait until it’s safe for our personnel to move into an area and begin the assessment process,” Mace said. “And at the same time, obviously, in the COVID-19 environment, travel and movement of personnel is much more complicated process.”

One sticking point post-Sally has been the question of providing documentation of private property damages – written accounts, photos and videos, and whether that’s a new FEMA requirement. It is not, says Mace.

“It’ certainly not a requirement in terms of the individual assistance request and declaration process,” said Mace. “But certainly, all the documentation that a homeowner does will help them not only with their insurance, but also if an individual assistance declaration is issued, the information will be helpful in determining what kind of assistance they may be eligible for.”

In this day of social media, submitting proof of damage isn’t expected to be the problem it was after past hurricanes, according to Escambia Administrator Janice Gilley.

“Folks had already recorded or provided a lot of data, either on Facebook, Instagram and things like that,” said Gilley. “And we said, ‘Look, if you already have these records of your residences, and the situation that you’ve been through, please send them to us.’”

And when it’s all said and done, FEMA’s Dave Mace says they’ll add their experiences with Hurricane Sally to the agency’s list of lessons learned.