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Lee County commissioners moved to intensify discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency five days after learning from a phone call that unincorporated Lee County and its municipalities, other than Sanibel Island and the city of Fort Myers, would be losing a 25% discount on flood insurance, effective Oct. 1. 

FEMA pledged April 1 to help the county and its affected communities to “take appropriate remediation action to regain those discounts,” FEMA spokesperson Lea Crager said. 

FEMA has what it calls a Community Rating System that determines policy discounts. It does this because it does not want taxpayers to be on the hook paying to repair buildings that do not meet current building codes in coastal areas prone to be impacted by future hurricanes. 

“This retrograde is due to the large amount of unpermitted work, lack of documentation and failure to properly monitor activity in special flood hazard areas, including substantial damage compliance,” FEMA wrote. 

Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch and County Manager Dave Harner will be spearheading a communications effort with FEMA that Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers said could cost his constituents aloneif the discounts aren’t reinstatedan estimated, combined $1.6 million more in flood insurance costs in an area Hurricane Ian ravaged Sept. 28, 2022. 

Allers said he was notified by county staff March 28 of FEMA’s decision and asked for a comment that went into the county’s first news release on the subject, sent March 29. 

“FEMA has provided no written notification or documentation outlining any specific details that would lead to this sudden rating change, which would take effect Oct. 1,” the release said. “The county’s diligent 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.” 

On April 1, Lee County clarified FEMA had sent three warning letters over the past year, and on April 2, Harner further clarified those three letters were among hundreds of communications between the two governments. Harner said he did not have all the pertinent information on hand when word of losing the discount came from FEMA. 

Harner said he and his staff are still gathering more information. He said the discount loss blindsided him because all prior requests from FEMA received responses from county staff. His staff provided 51 pages of emails confirming what he said. 

FEMA wrote Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass on Feb. 15, 2023, urging communication and a meeting on “managing post-disaster permitting, including identifying and managing substantially damaged structures,” stated the letter from Jackie Bell, FEMA’s director of mitigation in the Atlanta-based office. “During this meeting we will look for gaps or shortfalls in your program and determine the appropriate level of support you may need, offer some tools, best practices you may find useful and schedule periodic meetings to monitor progress.” 

On June 7, 2023, former county manager Roger Desjarlais received a letter from Jason Hunter, chief financial manager of FEMA’s chief floodplain management and insurance branch mitigation division. Hunter provided a July 7, 2023, deadline to receive from the county the following: A list of damaged structures, a list of demolition permits issued since the storm, copies of permits issued for repairs in the Special Flood Hazard Area, elevation certificates for any completed work in that area and explanation of substantial damage operations or plans for future compliance operations. 

On Dec. 6, 2023, Harner received a letter from Bell. It informed Harner that FEMA staff had toured the Special Flood Hazard Areas Oct. 30-Nov. 4, 2023. The twoperson teams identified rebuilding activity without permit documentations at 590 sites, the letter stated. Bell gave Harner a Jan. 12, 2024, deadline to respond. 

“This will demonstrate your community’s floodplain management program meets minimum requirements to ensure your community continues to be eligible for Community Rating System participation,” FEMA wrote. 

Harner went through the timeline of communications during the April 2 meeting. He said afterward that the 590 sites were a variety of placesresidences, businesses, etc.and that some were built before and some after the hurricane. He and his staff were still working to gather that information to distribute because some of it would have to be redacted for legal reasons. 

“Last time I checked, we do not live in a dictatorship,” Wesch said during the meeting. “Our first step is to open, I believe, a dialogue with FEMA. The comment that this decision is final, there’s no appeal, that’s not our system of government. 

We are in the process of assimilating information.” 

Wesch compared the situation to a complex high school math problem. 

“Show me your work,” Wesch said of FEMA. “You can’t just put your answer down. What we’ve seen so far from FEMA is their answer.  We haven’t seen their work. What was their decision based on? And we’re entitled to that. It would not be the first time a federal agency has been incorrect. We’ll remind FEMA that your constituents, our fellow residents, are also fellow constituents of the federal government. 

Wesch also advised the commissioners against pursuing litigation, for now. 

“Whether it be through a discussion resolution, mediation, arbitration or litigation, we will have a discussion with FEMA to see their math,” Wesch said. “And we will report back to you and keep you informed accordingly.” 

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