S. Fla. counties push for Ernesto aid

By Jason Schultz

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, September 01, 2006

Counties that combined to spend millions of dollars preparing for a wallop from Ernesto that never happened are banding together to ask state officials to flex their muscles getting the federal government to pay for their troubles.

Tony Carper, emergency management director for Broward County, sent e-mails Thursday to emergency directors in Collier, Miami-Dade, Martin and other counties that prepared for Tropical Storm Ernesto, asking them to send letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and their legislative delegation.

Carper wants the governor to ask President Bush for a special declaration that would make the counties eligible to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement, even though Ernesto left little damage. He said several counties have told him they would lobby their legislative delegations and send letters to the governor.

Carper estimated Broward's preparations cost $2.5 million and all of South Florida's preparations cost $10 million to $15 million.

"If you don't ask, you can't get it," Carper said. "There's plenty of precedent for it. Plus, many counties are still recovering from last year's storms and have spent so much on storm preparation."

FEMA reimbursed several counties in 1999 for preparations they made for Hurricane Floyd before it veered and hit farther north, Carper said.

Palm Beach County leaders weren't aware of Broward's initiative but have begun gathering information the state requested.

County administrators concede there is faint hope the federal government will reimburse any of the costs, which include buying ice and water, employee overtime, shelter openings and other related expenses.

Counties were notified Thursday to gather information on how much was spent on preparations, Assistant County Administrator Vince Bonvento said.

"There may be a potential reimbursement," Bonvento said. "We don't know if it's even going to fly."

Martin County officials said they were drafting letters to state emergency officials and legislators asking that FEMA reimburse at least 75 percent of the cost of Ernesto preparations.

Emergency Management Director Keith Holman said the county had no choice but to spend the money because of the forecasts and tropical storm warnings the National Weather Service issued.

"These actions were necessary and unavoidable. It's only reasonable that the costs be covered," Holman said. "We're looking for the state to be more aggressive in pursuing these reimbursements from FEMA."

Counties have not had much luck getting money from the federal government for preparations, especially when there is little damage from a storm, Holman said.

"As a general rule, we've eaten it," he said.

Taryn Kryzda, Martin County's interim deputy administrator, said the county will not know how much it spent on Ernesto until the middle of next week. She estimated a cost of about $94,000 a day responding to Hurricane Wilma last year but said Ernesto's costs would be much lower.

St. Lucie County Public Safety Director Jack Southard has heard nothing from the petitioners.

"I got a call from the state early this morning wanting to know about our costs, so I figured they were getting pressure from somewhere," Southard said. "We have a ballpark estimate of $25,000 for the county."

That does not include expenses for the sheriff's office, the fire district and a few other agencies.

Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for FEMA's regional office in Atlanta, said the agency can't say whether it will reimburse preparation costs for Ernesto until the governor asks the president for the declaration.

"We're not even in this game yet," Bahamonde said.

Carper said the counties should take action now because the storm was strengthening Thursday. He doesn't want Florida's expenses to get lost in the shuffle if FEMA officials start getting reimbursement requests from the Carolinas.

"We want to go ahead and get this in the queue," he said.