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South Florida officials seek FEMA's help with Ernesto bills

Though barely a storm, it was still costly to get ready for, they reason.

Published September 2, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH - Tropical Storm Ernesto didn't do much damage in South Florida, but it still ran up a tab.

As remnants of the storm marched up the East Coast, officials were getting ready to ask the federal government to reimburse them for millions of dollars spent preparing for a powerful storm that didn't materialize.

As of Friday, however, the only payment the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned was a thank-you.

"While the state of Florida has done an outstanding job preparing for the Ernesto storm system, FEMA does not reimburse states and counties unless there has been a federally declared disaster," agency spokesman Aaron Walker said.

Walker said the Homeland Security Department operates a preparedness grant program, but states and counties can apply for those funds only once a year.

Ernesto, briefly a hurricane on Sunday, had been forecast to possibly become a hurricane when it hit Florida earlier this week. But it came ashore as only a minimal tropical storm and caused little damage.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency only in anticipation of Ernesto's landfall. But several counties still want reimbursement for the costs of getting ready. They pushed ahead with plans to lobby the governor to seek assistance from Washington.

"Absolutely, we're looking for reimbursement," said Irene Toner, Monroe County's emergency management director in the Keys. She said costs there would likely approach $1-million.

"Even though we didn't have a great effect from Ernesto as far as damage, the preparedness and response costs were quite significant," Toner said. "If we do this three or four times a year, which is very possible, the financial loss is going to be great."

Broward County was also preparing to seek reimbursement for $2.5-million spent on preparations. Carl Fowler, a spokesman for the Broward Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA has reimbursed counties for such costs in the past.

"Many preparation situations that I've been involved in, the applicants have sought reimbursement and they have been approved for that, so it's not unusual," Fowler said. "We just want to show the state that we did everything we could to prepare and ... we're seeking good faith here."

Jim von Rinteln, Collier County's emergency management coordinator, estimated his county's preparedness costs would near $1-million.

"Part of Florida's success is in its preparatory work, and we feel that it really minimizes damage and protects lives and property, so it's money well spent, but it's money spent," von Rinteln said.

Miami-Dade County expected its costs to be near $10-million for preparations, including activation of numerous shelters, said Shanti Hall, a spokeswoman for the county Office of Emergency Management.

Palm Beach and Martin counties were also preparing to submit their costs.

Bush said Friday it was too soon to tell whether Florida would qualify for any reimbursements.

"That's still a work in progress," he said.

[Last modified September 2, 2006, 01:42:20]

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