Florida promised to rebuild ruined homes after Hurricane Irma. Most are still waiting

Marilynn Distefano misses feeding the colorful birds in her backyard. These days, she mostly just listens to them through the window of her room in a Fort Myers nursing home, where she’s lived since December — her latest stop since the state promised to rebuild her hurricane-wrecked home.

“I miss everything about being at home, and my neighbors,” said Distefano, 81. “I just want to go home.”

She can’t. As Atlantic hurricane season 2023 opens on Thursday, Distefano is one of thousands of people waiting on the state-run Rebuild Florida program, which was supposed to help low-income residents rebuild their hurricane-ravaged homes.

It’s been a long wait. Her home wasn’t destroyed by Hurricane Ian, which ravaged Southwest Florida last year, but by Irma way back in 2017. The state only got around to demolishing her damaged home in January and it’s unclear when it might be ready for her to come back.

Marilynn Distefano, 81, waits in a Ft. Myers nursing home while the state rebuilds her home, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irma and then further damaged by Hurricane Ian.

Rebuild Florida launched in September 2018, a year after the Irma hit, with a pitch to help the neediest families repair and rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Irma. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Florida $615 million specifically to help people like Distefano, low and moderate-income, vulnerable people who may not have had insurance to recover from the storm.

According to HUD documents, Florida has spent about 75% of the money it was granted for the home repair program. Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs Rebuild Florida, has refused to answer the Miami Herald questions about the program but as of a December 31 report filed by the state, Florida appears to have only “substantially rehabilitated” 151 structures in just under five years.

The total number of homes in that category is 5,799, according to the HUD documents — so it appears that some 5,600 remain to be completed.

The documents list the “projected end date” of the program as September 2024 so the pace of progress would have to ramp up exponentially to get anywhere close to completing remaining homes. And by 2025, any unused state funds are due back to the federal government, DEO has previously told other news outlets.

Rebuild Florida was a popular program in the wake of Irma, with more than 11,000 initial applicants, and the program paid off for some of them. More than 8,000 homes have received damage assessments, one of the earlier steps in the program, and DEO reported it had completed more than 2,800 projects since the program began — which can include repairing homes that did not need to be demolished and rebuilt.

Frustration over delays

Still, many applicants like Distefano feel like they’ve been given the run-around by the state.

The Miami Herald spoke with nearly a dozen Floridians from several counties who all expressed frustration with the years-long delays in fixing their homes. Some dropped out of the program and moved or sold their homes. Others have spent almost a year waiting in state-funded hotels for their homes to be rebuilt. Some retained lawyers.

None wanted to be quoted with their names, for fear of the state further delaying the rebuilding process. One applicant told the Herald they were specifically warned by a Rebuild Florida hot line representative not to talk to politicians or the press about the delays.

Getting answers about the program has been difficult and not just for the homeowners. The Miami Herald has been asking Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity about the program, and specifically, how many houses it had actually built, since 2020 and has yet to receive an answer. The complicated HUD reports could, for instance, understate the progress. But again this year DEO did not respond to emailed and phone questions and requests for clarification of the numbers.

Many upset residents told the Herald they had filed official complaints over the program with DEO, sometimes multiple. DEO did not respond to questions about how many complaints have been filed for this program.

That’s a change from past practices. In paperwork for similar grants from previous storms, including Hurricane Michael, DEO made note of how many complaints were received every quarter and provided explanations, responses and resolutions for each one. That information does not appear on Irma reports.

The issues with the program could extend beyond Irma. The state of Florida could use the same system to respond to Hurricane Ian, the Category 5 storm that devastated Southwest Florida in September.

In March, HUD announced that it plans to give Florida almost $3 billion to recover from Ian, including $910 million directly to DEO.

The agency, which oversees the state’s recovery effort from hurricanes, has yet to publicly release its draft plan for how it plans to spend the money, so it’s unclear if DEO plans to re-use the Rebuild Florida name or choose a different method or running the rebuild process.

So far, despite the years-long delays, the problems with the program have largely flown under the radar. The Herald reached out to a number of elected representatives and experts on disaster rebuilding but they were not monitoring Rebuild Florida. But there is an active Facebook group of applicants complaining out delays and difficulties navigating the process.

Running out of money

What is clear is that the Floridians waiting for their homes are frustrated, and in Distefano’s case, financially imperiled by the delays.

Her daughter, Lynne Daus, has been the one dealing with contractors and the state through the Rebuild Florida process on behalf of her mother. Over the years, they’ve been shunted from case manager to case manager and gone for months at a time with no update.

Daus said she doesn’t understand what the holdup is.

“Where’s the money sitting? Who’s got this money? You’ve had this money for so long, you can’t keep using this excuse. It’s going on year five,” she said. “There has to be some internal bureaucratic issue that we have not been told because this does not make sense. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The wait was so long that some applicants had to ride out Hurricane Ian, which arrived five years after Irma, in temporary housing. Distefano had to evacuate her Fort Myers home for Ian. She stayed with one of her other daughters in Cape Coral, but they lost power and running water as the hurricane raged overhead.

Distefano has lingering health problems from surviving breast cancer, and Daus said the combination of high heat and low water sent her mother into kidney failure. She was rushed to the hospital and then to rehabilitation, where she stayed through December. But by the time doctors were ready to release her, she had no home to return to.

After years of delays, the contractors hired by Rebuild Florida were finally ready to tear down Distefano’s house, which they did in December. They promised Daus it would be built in three months, so she found a nursing home for her mom that Medicaid would cover.

Construction workers build the outer walls of Marilynn Distefano’s Ft. Myers home, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and is part of the state’s Rebuild Florida program.

By June 1, the start of hurricane season, the home is still not built. Last week, construction finally began, but rebuilding could take three to four more months.

That’s left Distefano with a money problem. While staying in the facility, Medicaid takes most of her fixed income to cover costs, leaving her savings account dwindling with each month’s mortgage, tax and property insurance payment still due on the empty lot that was once her home.

“It’s put my mother in a financial crisis,” Daus said.

As of June, Daus said Distefano no longer has enough cash to make the monthly payments, and her home is still not finished, putting her at risk of defaulting on her mortgage. Daus started a GoFundMe to raise money, and she and her boyfriend have pledged to cover the payments as long as they can.

“I’m not going to let my mom lose her house,” she said.