PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Visitors to the Bay District Schools offices on Balboa are greeted by bare walls, plasterboard, and a dozen or so upside-down trash bins. When it rains, those bins are turned over to catch the water.
They also pass a sign which shows how much of the $500,000,000 the district needs to make the repairs from Hurricane Michael. So far the sign is up to $40,000,000. District leaders say it’s been stuck there for a year.
“Think about your worst insurance experience, multiply it by 100 times and you might be where we are with FEMA right now,” said Superintendent Bill Husfelt.
Everitt Middle School is still a damaged husk. Local law enforcement officers recently used the closed facility for active shooter training. School may back in session in other places, like Rosenwald High School, but the signs of the massive damage remain.
“We’re spending time and money and energy trying to get everything done the way they want it done and then they move the ball on us,” Husfelt said.
Husfelt isn’t alone. In July of last year he sent a letter outlining multiple problems with FEMA’s storm response, including inconsistent guidance, inaccurate and inconsistent application of FEMA policy and communication issues. The letter was co-signed by the leaders of Bay County, Mexico Beach, Panama City, Springfield, Parker, Lynn Haven, The Panama City Housing Authority, Girls Inc. and The Bay Health Foundation.
One of the biggest issues is how FEMA rotates their personnel in and out of the area. Husfelt claims the new faces almost always leads to a change in the rules.
“You end up with different guidance from different people who interpret the FEMA documentation a little differently,” said Callaway City Manager Ed Cook.
Cook added when the most recent change happened, city officials were not notified about the new personnel. Panama City leaders noted these changes in a statement to News 13.
“The City of Panama City continues to adapt to new FEMA guidance,” wrote City Manager Mark McQueen. “FEMA has released two sets of revised guidance documents for Public Assistance Programs in the last 120 days. The newest guidance redirects project development and provides for more efficient obligation of project funds. I am hopeful that this guidance will allow the City to reach an agreement with FEMA on the critical funding our community needs for recovery and receive approval of outstanding projects the City has submitted as part of our recovery process.”
Husfelt pointed out several other problems. Originally, FEMA sent two inspectors to examine more than 300 buildings. Those inspectors weren’t allowed to get onto roofs. So, FEMA initially approved a policy that allowed the district to hire its own inspectors. But then backtracked.
“They weren’t allowed to climb on the buildings and now they want to argue on whether or not the roofs really need replacing,” Husfelt said. “Now FEMA says, ‘Well, we weren’t sure the roofs were bad.’ I mean every roof in Bay County was bad. There wasn’t a roof that wasn’t bad in Bay County.”
Husfelt argues that FEMA officials, ensconced in their offices in Washington, have little understanding of the facts on the ground after a Category 5 Storm.
Another instance involved a district-run day care. Immediately after the storm, every day care in Hurricane Michael’s path was closed. If schools reopened, employees would need a place to take their children. FEMA initially approved the day care program, but later FEMA questioned its necessity.
“They have no idea what an actual category 5 hurricane looks like,” Husfelt said.
At one point school leaders were hopeful a new law would allow them to take out loans for the repairs, with FEMA reimbursing the district for those loans and the interest. It took a year to get a response from FEMA.
“And their response right now is, ‘it’s in the law but we don’t know how we are supposed to implement it. We can’t agree on how it’s supposed to be implemented,’” Husfelt said.
In response to these concerns FEMA sent News 13 a statement.
“FEMA is working closely with our state, county, and local partners to reimburse all eligible hurricane recovery costs for Hurricane Michael,” they wrote. “FEMA will provide all eligible assistance to these applicants while being good stewards for the taxpayers. In implementing the Public Assistance program, FEMA is as flexible as possible, but we must follow laws, regulations, and policies. Our primary goal when making program determinations and decisions is to provide all eligible costs allowed under the law. If applicants disagree with FEMA’s decision there is a process to appeal.”
Several officials we spoke to acknowledged the ongoing issues, but wouldn’t go on the record because they did not want to upset FEMA officials while still trying to receive their help. For his part, Husfelt is past the point of worrying about their feelings.
“Our community is suffering because of this,” he said. “Our school system is suffering because of this. But it’s immoral. It’s immoral and unfair the way we are being treated right now.”
Every time he speaks to them he gives them a reminder.
“It’s been 895 days 3 hours 20 minutes and 41 seconds since the hurricane hit here,” Husfelt said earlier this week.