Florida County Worries About Irma's Cleanup Costs

Sep 14, 2017
Originally published on September 14, 2017 7:39 am
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Let's head next to Florida, where people are very much still trying to put their lives back together after Hurricane Irma. Take Nassau County, just north of Jacksonville. It was hit by 3 feet of storm surge along the coast, flooding inland. And officials also think a tornado ripped through a section of the county. NPR's Brakkton Booker toured the damage.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Bill Leeper is the Nassau County sheriff, and he knows the county has bounced back from hurricanes before.

BILL LEEPER: Doing better now that the storm has passed, but we still have a lot of cleanup. A lot of people are still hurting. A lot of homes still flooded. A lot of debris on the road, power lines down, so we're still trying to clear all that.

BOOKER: We drive to the east, to the county's famed Amelia Island, known for golf and its annual Shrimp Festival. We see downed trees everywhere and beach erosion. When we get to the more rural, western part of the county, Leeper shows me where flooding from local tributaries has spilled over into parts of the town Callahan. We get out and walk to the water's edge, which is now in the middle of Lee Stoner Road.

LEEPER: I've seen it bad on the west side before. It just creates that flood, but I have not seen it this bad. It's bad.

BOOKER: A few moments later, Keith Lloyd (ph) drives over and talks to us from his pickup truck. His house now sits in a lake of brown, murky water.

KEITH LLOYD: One time before, but it wasn't that bad. Went in there about 6 inches in it, but now it looks like there's about 3 or 4 foot in there.

BOOKER: Lloyd's girlfriend, Anne Filingin (ph), is fighting back tears. Leeper, the county sheriff, tries to offer comfort.

ANNE FILINGIN: I know there's places probably worse than this, but...

LEEPER: No matter how bad you got it, somebody's always got it worse.

FILINGIN: Got it worse.

LEEPER: We'll get through it.

BOOKER: Back inside the sheriff's SUV, cracks in his optimism begin to surface. He laments the slow process of state and federal aid to reimburse local governments for frontline tasks during a disaster, things like paying for overtime for first responders and debris removal during hurricanes to make roads passable. Leeper says Nassau County is still owed a chunk of money from another storm.

LEEPER: We haven't even been reimbursed for Matthew yet, and that was last year. They owe us about $2.5 million on the county, and they haven't been reimbursed yet. So, you know, who knows when we'll get reimbursed with our money?

BOOKER: NPR could not independently verify that Nassau County was owed $2.5 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, told NPR in an email - FEMA has reimbursed the state of Florida for public assistance projects for Hurricane Matthew. It also added, some of the public assistance projects for Hurricane Matthew relief are still in process.

Florida's Division of Emergency Management told NPR they were working to get us details but could not do so before airtime. For his part, though, Leeper, the Nassau County sheriff, is focusing on making sure his county continues to heal from Irma's blow. And he knows there's always another storm coming.

LEEPER: You know, we've seen Harvey, been through Irma. Now we're watching Jose, so it's exhausting, to say the least.

BOOKER: One bit of good news for the sheriff is the latest National Hurricane Center forecast doesn't show Jose making landfall on the United States. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Nassau County, Fla.

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