JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - As the floodwaters recede and the recovery begins, communities swamped by Hurricane Florence soon will be facing deadlines to document the billions of dollars in damage it caused if they want to be reimbursed by the federal government.
A missed deadline could be costly, even if it's not directly the fault of the affected community, according to an Associated Press analysis of recent appeals decided by top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The AP found that tardiness is one of the most common reasons FEMA headquarters has denied appeals from cities, school districts and other public entities, accounting for well over $100 million in lost appeals over the past 12 months alone. FEMA's strict enforcement of deadlines means it hasn't even considered the merits of some appeals.
As it has focused on punctuality, FEMA denied about 4-of-every-5 funding appeals that rose to its headquarters over the past couple years, up from a two-thirds denial rate over the prior decade, according to the AP's analysis.
"We have been increasingly looking to apply the timeframes for the appeals," said FEMA's deputy director for public assistance, Tod Wells. "The objective is to establish a sound and reliable process," so communities hit by disasters such as Hurricane Florence can know what to expect.
Some on the losing end say another factor is in play - saving money.
"We recognize that in the last year FEMA has made many improvements to its management of appeals and created transparency in the process, and that a large reason for strict adherence to timeframes is to drive down the costs of disasters," said Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA rejected $11 million for a Nashville drinking water treatment plant flooded in 2010. The agency said it received the appeal years too late, though Sheehan contends it was submitted on time.
The recent appeal denials for missed deadlines include a total of $67 million sought by the tornado-ravaged schools of Joplin, Missouri, and $3.3 million that FEMA ordered be repaid by the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines for the cleanup of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
"We followed to the 'T' all the FEMA requirements, and I can tell you they're very particular about documentation and recording," said Pembroke Pines City Manager Charles Dodge. "To the best of my knowledge, that wasn't even looked it. It was just the question of 'Hey, we didn't get the form on time. Sorry folks, you're out. Pay us back.'"
FEMA relies on states to act as a go-between on such claims.
When FEMA reduced the city's previously approved aid in 2012, Pembroke Pines submitted an appeal within the required 60 days to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. But the state agency, which had another 60 days to forward it to FEMA, apparently failed to do so. FEMA says it didn't receive the appeals package until 2014. It denied the city's final appeal in August.
Pembroke Pines wasn't the only local Florida entity out of luck.
Since June 2017, FEMA's regional and national administrators have denied 64 Florida appeals because of missed deadlines years earlier, the state said. The Florida agency said FEMA has revoked nearly one-fourth of the $6.6 billion of public assistance it originally allotted for disasters that struck the state between 2004 and 2014.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Wes Maul acknowledges the agency had poor case management, a problem he is trying to change.
"What has occurred over the past few decades is inexcusable," said Maul, who has overseen a staff shake-up since joining the agency as chief of staff in 2016.
The AP found that the apparent failure of state agencies to forward appeals in time to meet FEMA deadlines also contributed to denials of contested funding in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Texas during the past year.
Since the AP first reported last year about FEMA's backlog of disaster aid appeals, the agency has improved the pace of its decision-making.
In 2016, just 12 percent of the decisions issued by FEMA headquarters were made within the 90 days allotted by law to decide appeals or request additional information. That rose to 25 percent last year and around 50 percent so far this year.
The quicker decisions helped FEMA shrink the pile of pending appeals at its headquarters from 64 at this time last year to 38 as of late September.
One of the biggest losers from FEMA's strict timelines has been the school district in Joplin, Missouri, which was denied about $67 million in a series of appeals to FEMA headquarters for damage caused by a powerful tornado in 2011. A main reason cited by FEMA in a Sept. 14 decision was that Joplin missed a 60-day window to appeal its reimbursement amounts in 2012.
School district officials claimed they didn't know FEMA's estimates were too low until an architectural firm later completed a review. The school system supplemented the federal disaster aid with insurance proceeds and voter-approved bond revenue but still had to take out a loan to cover the gap.
"The staff that was here at the time was under a tremendous amount of pressure, dealing with a lot of things in addition to trying to deal with FEMA," said Ron Lankford, Joplin schools' assistant superintendent for business services. He added: "Some flexibility to (extend deadlines) might be beneficial as much to FEMA as it would be to the injured community."
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