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Problems lead to building reform

County officials have learned valuable lessons in handling reconstruction.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


The storm churned in the Gulf of Mexico on the morning of March 13, 1993, heading inland, spawning a flood surge that buried the Hernando County coast in up to 6 feet of water. Thousands of unsuspecting residents were displaced; 1,300 homes were damaged.

The county Development Department's effort to oversee reconstruction of those homes would be marred by politicking and subterfuge, prompting a critical assessment of its actions by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Development Department officials would become the focus of a grand jury inquiry.

At the heart of the controversy that erupted in the storm's wake was the department's application of what is called the 50 percent rule. According to the federal rule, which communities adopt in order to take advantage of the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program, a structure that sustains damage equal to or in excess of half its value must be rebuilt to strict guidelines.

For homeowners faced with flood damage, that can mean tearing down what remains of their homes and building elevated ones designed to resist storm impact. The cost and disruption can be burdensome. Many hit by the no-name storm, which struck 10 years ago this week, resented the department's application of the rule, which the grand jury characterized as uneven and subject to political influence.

"They were just winging it," said Don Wendt, a carpenter who lost one of his two Aripeka homes to the storm. "We are talking about politics and government. It's how much money you got and who you know."

Then, as now, Grant Tolbert was the department's director. Tolbert acknowledges that political pressure was put on his department at the time and admits mistakes were made. But he denies anything illegal was done. And with a better trained staff, more resources and reforms to the 50 percent rule, Tolbert says the next time a storm batters the coast, confusion and scandal will not follow.

"The fact of the matter is we know how to dot our i's and cross our t's," Tolbert said. "I think it would be totally different."

Taking action

On the morning of the storm, department officials were notified by phone that Hernando Beach was under water. Quickly, they were in the thick of a crisis unlike any they had experienced. They opened a satellite office on Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach, put half their staff there, and tried to figure out what to do next. Working with them were FEMA officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and representatives of the Small Business Administration.

The department had four inspectors at the time, according to Tolbert. Their familiarity with the FEMA regulations and how to enforce the 50 percent rule was nominal, he said. In the years to come, federal officials would claim the department had been given guidance and should have been knowledgeable.

As quickly as they had swooped in, the federal agencies were gone.

"Within two or three weeks after that, everybody left," Tolbert said. "We were overwhelmed; there's no doubt about it."

For some, going home meant a thorough scrubbing, replacing drywall and doing some painting. For others, it meant demolition and rebuilding on stilts, or even abandoning their property. Who fell into which group depended on two numbers: the fair market value of the home and the cost to repair storm damage. Charged with applying the 50 percent rule, the Development Department went about overseeing collection of figures.

People looking to sidestep the rule and avoid rebuilding sought to inflate the value of their homes and downplay the cost of repairs. Those familiar with the 50 percent rule say such maneuvering happens often in the wake of disaster, and that the rule, enforced by local officials with local ties, is vulnerable to abuse.

"You play games with both sides of the equation; that is not unusual at all," said Brad Loar, a community mitigations branch chief with FEMA. "It is exacerbated when you have . . . a lack of operating policy or procedure to deal with it. Such was the case with Hernando."

In September 1994, FEMA released the results of its inquiry into the department's post-storm performance. Investigators found that the county accepted information on the market value of damaged homes from local real estate agents. Rules require the use of certified appraisers or tax assessments; they also allow for "qualified estimates" based on the "sound professional judgment" of local building officials.

Tolbert said he understands FEMA's preference for independent assessments performed by certified appraisers. Currently, the department uses such professionals, he said. In the case of widespread storm damage, however, the preferred approach may not be possible. If a storm of the no-name's magnitude hit tomorrow, there would be too few independent assessors.

"Are there enough appraisers out there to get these people's structures appraised in a reasonable amount of time to get them back into their houses?" Tolbert asked. "The answer is probably not."

FEMA also found that the department had accepted repair cost figures from property owners and contractors that were "clearly underestimated." In a few cases, more than one rebuilding permit was issued. Often, the 50 percent rule is circumvented by breaking up total repair costs into parts and permitting the work separately.

"Everybody played that game," said Tolbert, referring to distortion of market value and repair cost figures. "And we knew that game was being played. And we argued and we fought to what we felt like were reasonable limits on that."

The political dynamic following disasters such as the no-name storm can make enforcing the rules difficult, according to FEMA's Loar. There are the victims, clamoring to quickly return to their homes. Elected officials do not want to disappoint them. Standing in the way are building officials.

Tolbert said his department never felt the pressure to accept inflated market costs for homes or ridiculously low repair costs, nor did they knowingly approve them. Influence was brought to bear, however, when it came to who among the hundreds of applicants seeking to rebuild received their permits first.

"The political heat was, 'Why aren't you getting that permit out faster?' " said Gary Fisher, a zoning administrator with the department. "The way you get that permit out faster is putting everybody that's in front of them and putting them back. Because he is yelling the loudest."

FEMA recommends prioritizing those structures that are "borderline," meaning it is not obvious whether repair costs are above or below market value. Wendt, the Aripeka carpenter, said there were other criteria at work when it came to determining who got quick service.

"I had some very wealthy clients, and I just went straight to the county commissioners, and their permits just sailed right through," he said.

The scandals investigated during the reconstruction included a building official -- subsequently fired -- who was in the pocket of a local developer, the failure to demolish Hernando County Port Authority headquarters as required by the 50 percent rule and the Development Department's allowing county Commissioner John Richardson to convert an Aripeka shack into a $70,000 residence in violation of coastal development regulations.

The grand jury found that department employees had not been trained to uniformly apply FEMA rules and were "subject to undue influence by elected officials, especially county commissioners."

Tolbert was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, though the grand jury recommended his resignation or firing. He maintains to this day that he did not engage in any corrupt activity.

Making improvements

Some view the federal flood insurance program that requires enforcement of the 50 percent rule as an outrageous boondoggle. According to that view, it amounts to government subsidy of private risk. FEMA paid out $110-million in the state after the no-name storm.

Powerful lobbies, from the tourism industry to developers, have an interest in preserving the system. Private insurers do not offer coastal flood insurance, leaving that risk to the federal government.

While some may criticize the program and bemoan its effect on coastal development in Florida, it has become a fact of life. That means when the next storm comes, the Development Department will again be asked to enforce the 50 percent rule. The challenge could be even more formidable, and the amount of money paid out by taxpayers greater.

In 1993, 8,134 people lived west of U.S. 19 in Hernando County. Today, 10,869 live in the area. There were 4,236 mobile homes and houses, valued at $244-million. Now, there are 5,255, valued at $459-million.

Unlike in 1993, Tolbert said department employees train regularly in FEMA preparedness and response procedures. All permitted houses in flood zones are registered and tracked separately in the department's computer system.

To deal with the problem of getting an adequate number of inspectors on the ground quickly, the department is party to an interagency cooperative agreement. Should disaster strike the coast, the agreement allows Tolbert to call on building inspectors from surrounding counties.

"What we are really seeing is a substantial improvement in the way the (Hernando) program is run," Loar said. "They have more familiarity with FEMA regulations, documents and procedures."

Likely smoothing the process further would be changes to the 50 percent rule that make it less onerous.

Those living in flood areas called V-zones, the most dangerous, now base repair costs only on damage to structural materials. In 1993, nonstructural items such as flooring and paint had to be included if damaged.

In less flood-prone areas, called A-zones, damages were calculated cumulatively over a five-year period. If a house valued at $100,000 sustained $49,000 in damage in four years, a minor event causing $1,000 in damage in the fifth year could force the owner to rebuild the structure. The rule is no longer cumulative. Now, the rule applies to the effects of a single storm.

Rule changes aside, Tolbert credits the no-name storm itself with affording the best defense against repeating the past: experience.

"That's the major difference, our experience," he said. "We would know what to do."

As was proven in 1993, predicting when a disastrous storm will strike is difficult. But the coast, one day, will get hit again, and Tolbert could be forced to test his experience.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service say the diversity of forces at work in the no-name storm make it impossible to say when another storm of equal magnitude might be likely to hit. It could be 100 years from now, they say, or next month.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

Making changes

Following the no-name storm of March 13, 1993, county Development Department officials became the focus of a grand jury investigation. The scandals the inquiry dealt with focused on application of Federal Emergency Management Agency rules that determine which homes must be rebuilt and elevated following a storm. Officials say changes in the Development Department and in FEMA's rules make a repeat of the scandals less likely.

Grand jury findings

-- Department employees were not trained to uniformly enforce FEMA guidelines.

-- Officials allowed building to proceed that violated coastal construction rules.

-- Department employees were subject to influence by elected officials, particularly county commissioners.

Grand jury recommendations

-- The establishment of an ethics code to isolate department employees from county officials and contractors.

-- The ouster of department director Grant Tolbert. The grand jury later reversed itself, saying it did not want to make Tolbert a scapegoat for the department's problems.

Changes in rules

-- Development Department employees have greater familiarity with FEMA regulations and are better trained.

-- The department is party to a cooperative agreement that allows it to call on building inspectors from surrounding counties in the event of a disaster.

-- Compliance with the 50 percent rule, at the heart of much of the scandal following the storm, is not as great a burden on homeowners as it once was.

-- Experience. Department officials claim that above all else, having gone through all that followed the no-name storm will help prevent similar problems in the event of another such storm.

Storm toll

The no-name storm's impact was felt not only in Hernando County, but across Florida. Here are some statewide statistics provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

-- 18,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

-- A tidal surge of up to 12 feet in some locations.

-- $500-million in property damage.

-- Twenty-six deaths.

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