TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida is starting to distribute federal disaster-relief money that was approved last year to help the citrus industry after Hurricane Irma caused massive damage to groves.
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Wednesday that the state recently awarded $14 million from a $343 million federal block grant for the industry and continues to process and accept applications from growers.
The distribution has moved forward after the end of the partial federal government shutdown. Moskowitz said the shutdown affected the ability of the state to process applications for the money.
“As long as the federal government stays open, I anticipate — and we have the applications in and filled out — we’re going to turn them around very quickly,” Moskowitz said.
He estimated that about 66 percent of applicants still have paperwork to complete.
Irma, which hit in September 2017, uprooted groves and caused flooding that affected citrus growers across the state. Florida’s citrus industry accounted for at least $761 million of the more than $2.5 billion in agricultural losses from the storm.
Congress and President Donald Trump approved the grant for Florida’s citrus industry in February 2018. The plan directed money for new trees, grove rehabilitation, irrigation-system repairs and replacements, covering future economic losses and helping growers meet crop-insurance purchase requirements for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
But before the federal shutdown began in December, and before Moskowitz, a former House member, began running the Division of Emergency Management last month, the state had only awarded $3 million from the block grant.
Along with the shutdown, a holdup in the distribution has been a state policy requiring project worksheets to first be “100 percent audited,” Moskowitz said.
“I anticipate that over the next three to four weeks to have an additional program announcement in which we’re going to change the auditing process so we can get more money out quicker,” Moskowitz said. “That’s not because we’re going to have less accountability, it’s because we’re going to go back to doing what works, what the model is and what FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) does.”
The auditing changes should also help speed money to areas of the eastern Panhandle impacted by Hurricane Michael in October and free up federal dollars tied to Hurricane Hermine, which hit Northwest Florida in 2016, and Hurricane Matthew, which caused damage as it ran along the East Coast.
“No other state in the country was doing that. FEMA doesn’t do that,” Moskowitz said of the state’s auditing requirement. “It was a policy that was put in place for a different time, when we weren’t responding to events. That policy no longer works.”
Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said governments in Northeast Florida have been waiting three years for promised federal reimbursements.
“I just want to make sure we’re not forgotten in the process,” Hutson said.
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