FEMA officials: "Over 5 billion distributed in federal assistance to Hurricane Ian victims."

With more than 100 days past since Hurricane Ian's wrath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has made immense progress and is ramping up housing programs to help victims.

FEMA officials gave an update to The News-Press Wednesday on recovery efforts since Ian's hit to the region, including addressing temporary housing needs, highlighting critical resources and giving insight on how they've gotten to this point in the recovery process.

The agency says: 911,000 households have registered for assistance, with 194,000 in Lee County. Between FEMA, the Small Business Administration and flood insurance claims, a total of $5 billion in federal assistance has been given out.

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Of that $5 billion, $374 million will go towards individuals and households in Lee County, with $279 million of that going toward housing assistance. From the $279 million, $53 million will go towards rental assistance. Charlotte County and Collier County have also received funding towards rental assistance, with Charlotte receiving $8 million and Collier receiving $12 million.

FEMA Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Keith Denning said they've have been doing pretty well on the recovery front, continuing their mission to do whatever they can to help those in need find assistance.

Road to recovery and its challenges

Having arrived to Southwest Florida scene before Ian touched down, Denning gave insight to what the last four months have looked like for him and his staff on the recovery front. He highlighted their early goals and priorities, saying they immediately focused on life safety, search and rescue and stabilizing the community.

"(We had to) power up, get communication up and running, and roads and bridges, things like that, transportation (back up) and then start clearing the debris because you can't rebuild until you start to do that, so those are the things," Denning said. "Of course, our housing mission started in October. And we're having to ramp that up at the same time."

He expressed that there were a lot of moving parts, everything from making sure basic necessities were met for communities to supporting both local and national teams.

The biggest obstacles along the way? Denning said it's been the debris, all 33 million cubic yards of it.

"The effect of the storm surge and the areas that were affected by that … it was rather large, so that's one of the challenges and seeing the effects of that," Denning said. "We met them again by addressing our policy for private property debris removal and then also for our direct housing program."

Throughout these long months, they've had 2,500 employees from around the state working around the clock to help those who need it get assistance. That number that gone down to 1,500 employees due to some programs not being needed so much as they were in the beginning.

Denning took note of the FEMA employees and how hard they are working to help residents, adding they make 18,000 calls per day to victims.

What to know about temporary housing

As of Jan. 18, there are:

  • 1,320 families occupied within 240 hotels throughout the region through FEMA's transitional sheltering assistance program.

  • Eight families in their direct lease program, which allows FEMA is find properties or apartments for families. Denning said they are currently looking for more apartments and houses for this program.

  • They have 91 households licensed into a direct lease property or a trailer.

  • There are 64 households in either mobile homes or trailers on private sites and 19 in commercial lots, and Denning said that total is going up constantly.

There are currently 316 work orders to deliver a trailer, of which 189 in progress. They are aiming to be completed by the middle of March, a slight increase for their previous goal of the end of February.

"We wanted to get all of our families that are going to either have a trailer on a private site or in a commercial site complete. That's probably going to be the second week of March now based on just the throughput of the pipeline and how quickly we can get trailers here. But about the middle of March is what we're looking at there for to have everybody on private sites and commercial sites, which would be all of those private sites on the barrier islands that we're talking about.

Denning highlighted that they also recently made some changes to allow for trailers to be placed in Special Flood Hazard Zones, like the barrier islands and Fort Myers Beach. As of a few days ago, he saw 10 work orders for trailers headed to the barrier islands, adding they are increasing their daily delivery of units and will see more.

He also touched on their plans for once the trailers are removed on Aug. 1.

"At the same time, we're working on those options that will be available after Aug. 1 because those travel trailers on the barrier islands can only stay there until that time, we want to have something, another option available for those families that need it after after that period," Denning said. "We're working on group sites, commercial, commercial parks, those types of things because we understand that for some people, their homes will not be repaired by then and they'll need another options."

While the deadline has passed for trailers, here are the temporary housing assistance programs still offered:

  • Rental Assistance - FEMA may provide financial assistance to homeowners or renters to rent alternate temporary housing if they are displaced from their primary residence due to damage from Hurricane Ian. The damaged house must be uninhabitable because of the hurricane and the housing needs must not be covered by insurance.

  • Transitional Sheltering Assistance - FEMA may provide temporary sheltering in a hotel. Those who are in shelters or are displaced because the home is inaccessible or uninhabitable may be eligible.

  • Home Repair/Replacement - Financial assistance may be available for eligible homeowners to rebuild or make basic repairs to make their home safe, sanitary, and functional again.

  • Direct Lease - FEMA may lease existing, ready-to-occupy residential properties for use as temporary housing. Eligible property types may include vacation rentals, corporate apartments, second homes, single-family homes, cooperatives, condominiums, townhouses, and other dwellings. Direct lease is for eligible applicants whose housing needs cannot be met with other direct temporary housing assistance options.

  • Multi-family Lease and Repair - FEMA funds the repair or improvement of existing vacant multi-family rental properties that eligible applicants can use for temporary housing

For residents still needing assistance with resources, Denning recommends visiting one of their Disaster Resource Centers and finding out exactly what program is best for their situation. For those who receive denials for assistance, he notes residents have 60 days to initiate an appeal.

FEMA assistance centers within Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties:

  • Lakes Regional Library - 15290 Bass Road, FORT MYERS, FL 33919

  • Lake Kennedy Center - 400 Santa Barbara Blvd, CAPE CORAL, FL 33915

  • Estero Council Chambers - 9401 Corkscrew Palms Circle, ESTERO, FL 33928

  • Beach Baptist Church - 130 Connecticut St., FORT MYERS BEACH, FL 33931

  • Phillips Community Park - 5675 Sesame Drive, BOKEELIA, FL 33922

  • Sanibel Community Church - 1740 Periwinkle Way, SANIBEL, FL 33957

  • Bonita Springs Recreational Center - 26740 Pine Ave., BONITA SPRINGS, 34135

  • Cultural Center - 2280 Aaron St, PORT CHARLOTTE, FL 33952

  • Tringali Rec Center - 3450 N Access Road, ENGLEWOOD, FL 34224

  • Donna Fiala Eagle Lakes Community Center - 11565 Tamiami Trail E., NAPLES, FL 34113

Next steps

As for FEMA's other priorities, Denning shared their plans for rebuilding that are currently underway.

The Public Assistance Program aims to reimburses local jurisdictions, counties, cities and towns for damage to public facilities, public systems, and public buildings. It can reimburse for expenses, such as debris removal and labor costs.

"As we're going through those repairs with the local jurisdictions, we want to look at how we can rebuild things stronger … be more resilient, so that we can lessen the chance of damage in the future or the loss of life or property," Denning said. "So we have programs that when we're rebuilding, we can add in a certain amount of money to that project and make it stronger."

He said the state emergency management department has a number of projects lined up, as well as a percentage of rebuilding projects where the mitigation work would need to be worked in to build stronger roads, bridges and facilities.

As for those still frustrated by the assistance process, Denning offered his support and encouraged those needing assistance to reach out.

"Don't give up, visit a Disaster Recovery Center," Denning said. "Please sit down and talk with someone and answer the questions and don't be afraid to tell us what it is exactly that you need."

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: FEMA officials give critical on Hurricane Ian recovery statistics