It’s been a month. Hurricane Ian Wiped out parts of southwest Florida. Now multimillion-dollar cleanup contracts are spawning new storm after Category 4 storm.

Contractors who remove debris and repair after the storm are vying for local government contracts that can be worth tens of millions of tax dollars. The skirmishes offer a preview of potential battles over local, state and federal funds that will be distributed over the next several months to help Southwest Florida recover. Back on your feet.

A case in point is the recent controversial extension of a land-based storm debris removal contract that was put out to bid well in advance of the hurricane. Coincidentally, the Crowder-Gulf joint venture was awarded the contract just days after Ian made landfall at the county’s Cave Costa State Park on September 28.

In response to extensive hurricane damage, county officials expanded the scope of the agreement on Oct. 2 to include waterways and private property.

Dispose quickly Downed trees, blown roof eaves and shredded drywall is one of the most difficult but important parts of hurricane recovery. County officials want to get the job done quickly because local governments receive direct payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the cost of debris within 60 days of a storm. Officials estimate Lee County has 1.8 million cubic yards of storm debris.

“We’re hitting some very important timelines,” Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli said at a recent meeting.

But Bart Smith, an attorney for a contractor who lost the bid to Crowder Gulf Joint Venture, told Lee County commissioners that not putting the additional work included in the contract extension out to bid puts them at risk of a “clawback.” . This is when FEMA withdraws money previously awarded.

“Decisions are always made after storms, and these are emergencies, but you have to understand that 20-20 and FEMA, when they make all these payments years later and review it and audit it. And then you’re told you have to pay this money back. The money back, that has ramifications,” Smith said.

Daniela Sanabria, an attorney for another rival contractor, also warned commissioners about potential clawbacks, saying the expansion of the debris removal contract to cover waterways and private property was anti-competitive.

“In light of Hurricane Ian, this is a huge increase in the scope of the contract, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sanabria said. “It is being unfairly and uncompetitively awarded.”

The federal government regularly returns disaster funds that it believes were improperly distributed or when procedures were not properly followed. Federal agencies sought to recoup $73 million from more than 1,800 New Jersey households that received federal disaster payments from Superstorm Sandy a decade ago. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, FEMA filed a $4.3 million claim against Lake Worth Beach, Florida.

Officials estimated the damage caused by Ian in Florida and North Carolina at between $40 billion and $70 billion, making it one of the costliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. At least 118 d*aths are due to this storm.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais dismissed the complaints, saying vendors who don’t get a piece of the pie will try to “muddy the waters” because so much money is at stake in hurricane cleanup efforts. Is.

“Every once in a while, the politics of disaster take over at some point because some of these companies have a lot of money to make millions of dollars,” Desjarlais said.

Douglas Whitehead, Lee County’s solid waste director, said the new, expanded contract with Crowder is cheaper per truckload than the old contract, which had inflation-driven costs. He said that the extension of the existing agreement provides continuity in the emergency situation.

But two of the five commissioners said no to the deal when it came up for a vote last week.

“I’m going to vote against the motion,” Commissioner Brian Hyman said at the time. “I don’t feel comfortable with the way it went down.”

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