FEMA declares 22 more counties eligible for Ivan aid, despite little damage

Hurricane Ivan slammed ashore in Alabama in mid-September, but Floridians as far away as Palm Beach County -- 675 miles from the storm's landfall -- can now collect disaster aid from the federal government.

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency added 22 counties in mostly central and eastern Florida to the presidential disaster declaration, allowing residents to receive money for damaged property and belongings.

"It was just a rain event,'' said Ken Roberts, public safety director for Seminole County in northeast Florida, where residents can now apply for Ivan relief. "It wasn't anything for us to get overly excited about.''

Ivan missed most of Florida as it churned north in the Gulf of Mexico before striking Gulf Shores, Ala., and devastating the Panhandle. Remnants of Ivan headed out to the Atlantic and turned south.

Beginning Sept. 21, what was left of the storm -- not even strong enough to be a tropical depression -- came ashore at Palm Beach County and crossed the state.

"This system paralleled our eastern coastline causing extreme coastal erosion and produced copious amounts of rainfall,'' wrote Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director, in a Nov. 23 request to FEMA to add the counties. "This rainfall caused widespread flooding.''

But emergency management officials in several of the newly declared counties said Monday they knew of no damage from Ivan, with one calling the storm a "non-event.'' The National Weather Service recorded no tornadoes or strong winds.

"As far as any effects, there were none along the east coast of Florida or Central Florida,'' said Jim Lushine, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami.

Fugate's staff and FEMA officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

FEMA is already under fire for giving out $29 million in Miami-Dade after Hurricane Frances, the Labor Day storm that brought minimal damage to the county.

The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's umbrella agency, is investigating fraud allegations in Miami-Dade and anticipates arrests in the coming weeks.

Adding counties for Ivan assistance could lead to even more fraud, said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

"If people have been hurt and if this helps them get aid, wonderful,'' he said. "But if this results in additional payments to areas that are largely unaffected by the storm, it's ill-advised. I'd hoped that FEMA had learned its lesson from Miami-Dade, but apparently they haven't.''

Ivan's fury is not in dispute. The hurricane brought 130 mph winds and a storm surge of up to 15 feet across the Panhandle, destroying beachfront homes and partially collapsing the I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay.

On Sept. 16, the president declared residents in 15 northwest Florida counties eligible for assistance, with another county added the next day.

Ivan's second pass through Florida formed the basis for adding the 22 counties last Thursday. That decision caught emergency managers in some of the affected counties by surprise.

Citrus County on the west coast "didn't get any damage from Ivan,'' said Rusty Harry, emergency management coordinator. "I would think I would have known.''

In Flagler County, south of Jacksonville, Ivan's remnants dumped 2 inches of rain, "which is really no big shakes in Florida,'' said Bob Pickering, emergency management technician. "There were a couple of minor power failures, maybe a tree down.''

Officials in Orange County, home of Orlando's famed tourist attractions, were relieved when Ivan spared them. "From my knowledge, we didn't experience a lot of damage,'' said Preston Cook, assistant director of emergency management.

FEMA tracked calls from Orange County residents claiming they had damage from Ivan.

"I don't know of any particular numbers,'' Cook said. "Our concern is if the citizens are saying they need assistance ... and FEMA deems it's something they want to do, we're happy.''

In West Palm Beach, the Weather Service recorded 1.27 inches of rain on Sept. 20 and a half-inch the next day. After that, more than 1,000 Palm Beach County residents called FEMA to say they had damage from Ivan, said John Tatum, recovery manager for the county's emergency management office.

"I was surprised,'' Tatum said. "The next word I got from the disaster field office was that there were over 500 they considered legitimate claims. ... If FEMA checked out the details of it, that's good enough for me.''

Several emergency management officials speculated that Floridians, confused by an unprecedented four hurricanes in two months, mistakenly told FEMA they had damage from Ivan when it was actually another storm. They also said seasonal residents just returning for the winter may only now be discovering damage and attributing it to Ivan.

Seminole County emergency managers wondered why FEMA deemed their residents eligible for Ivan relief.

"It seemed like it was kind of a blanket inclusion,'' said Roberts, the public safety director. "I certainly didn't raise my hand and say, `Don't do it.' "

Some counties did report minimal flooding, including St. Lucie on the Treasure Coast. In Flagler County, about five homes had water damage, said Troy Harper, emergency management division chief.

Much of Pasco County on the west coast was already saturated from heavy rains, including nine inches from Hurricane Frances, when Ivan's remains brought another 2 to 3 inches, said Michele L. Baker, emergency management director.

"In the big picture ... does it matter which of four storms in quick succession causes it?'' Baker asked. "It does if you're making stuff up. But our system should be smart enough to catch it.''

Roberts isn't so confident.

"Where does logic fit into the picture?'' he said. "Talk to someone in [Miami-Dade] County. Go figure that one out.''

Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4510.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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