Hurricane Wilma blew through South Florida almost a decade ago, but local governments are still fighting over whether they'll have to forfeit millions of dollars in disaster assistance related to the storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently rejected Fort Lauderdale's appeal and is again asking the city to pay back $10 million.
The city plans to file a second appeal and has hired a Washington law firm that specializes in FEMA cases. The city has decided not to contest $1.1 million of the disputed amount, but will still challenge having to repay the remaining $8.8 million.
"This is a lot of money," Mayor Jack Seiler said. "We feel very strongly that we're right."
Eight years may seem like a long time to close the books on Wilma, but it took more than 16 years before resolving all Florida payments for Hurricane Andrew, which struck in 1992, said Aaron Gallaher, spokesman for the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
"There's a lot of back-and-forth process that goes on," Gallaher said. "Sometimes disputes are part of that normal resolution process … Things do come up and it takes a lot to get through them."
In all, auditors from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General have questioned more than $60 million in disaster payments to 21 South Florida governments related to Wilma, which struck in October 2005.
The haggling involves issues such as debris removal costs. Auditors also pointed out when proper procedures weren't followed or the documented paperwork wasn't sufficient to justify the amount of expenses reimbursed.
Some cities have had success. Hollywood had to file a second appeal, but was rewarded last year with a decision to give it an additional $4.6 million for debris removal.
Miramar was able to convince federal auditors last year to reduce reimbursment from $6 million to $150,000, city spokesman Gus Zambrano said.
Other cities are still waiting to hear.
Coral Springs officials were pleased a year ago when state officials said FEMA had used "erroneous findings" in requesting a reimbursement and recommended the city be allowed to keep $3.1 million of its disputed cash.
However, Coral Springs Assistant City Manager Susan Grant said the city still hasn't heard from FEMA if it agrees with the state.
Even if Fort Lauderdale loses its next appeal, there is $10 million in reserves for repayment, spokesman Chaz Adams said.
Lea Crager, a spokesman for FEMA's regional office in Atlanta, said the disputed bills are only a small portion of the overall assistance that is given.
Florida governments and private nonprofits that provided critical hurricane assistance during Wilma submitted more than 9,000 payment requests, Crager said. Of those, only 60 are now in the appeal process, although some may still not have reached that stage yet.
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