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Years of waiting, months in hotels: People recount their experiences with Rebuild Florida

Posted at 11:33 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 23:33:39-04

NAPLES — Hundreds of millions of dollars meant for hurricane relief have been sitting in a bank account for years.

The Rebuild Florida program was created to help people repair or replace homes damaged in hurricane Irma, but the timeline to use that money is ticking down, and while some people have received help, many more across Southwest Florida are still waiting. ​

Paul Ashby remembers what it was like returning to his mobile home after evacuating in 2017.

"Water was up to almost my knees," said Ashby.

Today, the straps that used to secure his mobile home to the ground still dangle where Ashby said they were broken by the wind, but that’s just the beginning of the damage.

"The one awning off that one window was gone, the air conditioner off the side out here was laying out here in the yard, and then we went inside," said Ashby.

Inside, Ashby said not much has changed since Hurricane Irma in 2017, where he said the water warped the floors to the point where now the doors don’t fully open. In the bathroom, the ceiling shows signs of water damage, and where there was once a toilet, now there’s a hole straight through to the ground.

But Ashby said the most concerning issue is the family room.

"Right after Irma it started turning black," said Ashby.

Ashby said he thinks it's black mold covering the room from the ceiling down to the floor. So he and his wife Marcia moved as much as they could into the living room.

Ashby said his wife applied to Rebuild Florida to try to solve these problems. It's a program run by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO) that is designed to help people whose homes were damaged in Hurricane Irma.

But the Ashbys said they had no idea that assistance would take years, and they aren’t the first Rebuild Florida family we’ve met living like this.

Last September, Kelly Smith and Ray Walters showed us similar conditions in their mobile home in North Fort Myers that was damaged in Hurricane Irma as well.

"We can grow mushrooms in our bathroom because of the mold," said Smith at the time.

But Smith said, when she got approved for the Rebuild Florida program, she was told not to make any improvements to the house. She got a "stop work notice", and Ashby said, he got the same thing.

"He says we really don’t want you to do any of the work. He says wait until we come in and decide what we’re going to do," said Ashby.

But for Ashby, the decision on whether to repair his home or replace it altogether took years, and it’s not clear why, because we asked, and Rebuild Florida told us the money is there. The program started one year after Hurricane Irma in September of 2018, with $346,186,147 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

We submitted a public records request and learned, so far, the program has only spent $38,344,358. That’s under 12% of the total funds.

The program now has until 2024 to use the remaining amount of $307,841,789. Meanwhile, Ashby said his living situation is taking a toll on his health.

“The last time I went to the doctor, I says can you up the dosage on my nerve medication? So he did," said Ashby.

State employees tell us they are making progress. FDEO reports 1,618 families have been helped so far. FDEO regularly tweets about the success stories, and one of those was Smith and Walters, although they don’t see it as much of a success.

"The process has been awful," said Smith.

We caught back up with them in April. All their stuff was piled into a storage container. They had moved out of the old mobile home, but they weren’t in a new one yet. Instead, they told us they had been staying at the Woodspring Suites while their new home was being set up.

"When we went into that hotel, we thought the process was going to be quick, because they’re paying for us to be in a hotel. So we really didn’t think we’d be living there," said Smith.

Smith and Walters ended up "living there” for more than four months. Rebuild Florida told us on April 28th it had 89 other people staying in hotels as well throughout the state at that time.

But in Smith’s case, she said that hotel stay ended abruptly.

"Our rent was up on the 30th. Nobody could get a hold of Rebuild Florida, so we had to leave our room. So now we don’t have a room, and my friends were gracious enough to give us this place," said Smith.

They were living at their friend's house in Cape Coral when we interviewed them again in April. Rebuild Florida employees told us they couldn’t comment on Smith’s experience because they are barred from sharing client information.

Since that interview, Smith and Walters did finally move into their new mobile home, but it’s a far cry from their old one before the storm.

"Our old home had gutters, downspouts, our new home will not have that. Our old home had a car port and a shed, our new home will not have that," said Smith.

As Rebuild Florida starts accepting another round of applications for Hurricane Michael victims, Smith said, she can’t stop thinking about the people still waiting. People like Paul and Marcia Ashby.

"People have waited a long time, and in that time, all of us have suffered," said Smith.

"I don’t need a $150,000 home, I really don’t. Just give me something decent that I can live in," said Ashby.

In October of last year, the Ashbys learned their house is too damaged and will have to be replaced, but Rebuild Florida also determined it's in a flood plain, so like Smith and Walters, the Ashbys are going to have to move to a new mobile home park.

Meanwhile, we’re still working to get you answers about the Rebuild Florida program, and why people like the Ashbys aren’t getting help faster. Two weeks ago, we asked the program how many people are currently waiting for help, what is contributing to the delays, and what happens to the hundreds of millions in funding if it isn’t used by the 2024 deadline.

We will update this story when we receive that information.