Tue, Jun 25, 2024

Rebuild Florida was created to help some of the most vulnerable Floridians repair or replace their homes damaged by Hurricane Irma. Some of them are still waiting.

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. — Nearly seven years after Hurricane Irma damaged Mary Gill’s roof, her Middleburg home is still covered in tarps held down with cinder blocks.

“This right here just keeps me just keeps me worried all the time,” Gill said. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

First Coast News visited her house on a rainy day and saw water leaking inside her windows.

There is a gaping hole in her roof that continues to get bigger as she says she waits for Rebuild Florida, a program she registered for in 2020.

Gill says she can touch the roof, and a piece will fall off. “And you can see all the mold and everything up inside there,” she said.
Rebuild Florida is a program administered by the Florida Department of Commerce, previously known as the DEO, the Department of Economic Opportunity. The state allocated $480 million it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to repair or replace about 4,000 homes damaged in 2017 by Hurricane Irma. Many of the applicants are elderly, disabled or low income.  

Gill tried to call her case worker when First Coast News was at her home. 

“Her mailbox is full and won’t accept messages,” Gill said, hanging up.   

She says she’s spent countless hours calling her case workers at Rebuild Florida trying to find out when the work will begin. She shared an email from 2021 from Rebuild Florida saying Hurricane Irma damage had been confirmed on her home and her application was pending environmental review.

“Since 2021, I have been waiting for an environmental inspector to come to my home before any work can get done,” Gill said.

She never expected it would take this long to get an answer.

“Still no answers, the same thing. Everybody I talked to says ‘I don’t know.’ I mean, I don’t even know what these people are getting paid for, because it seems like they would have more information available to give you some time frame or something,” Gill said.

She’s not the only one waiting for Rebuild Florida. 

“I call them and tell them my problems and all I get is the runaround,” Anthony Stevens, who lives in Jacksonville, said. Stevens got a brand new house through Rebuild Florida, but he’s still waiting on repairs. He showed First Coat News a garbage disposal in the home, which he says has never worked and isn’t even connected.

FloridaCommerce says 3,651 homes have been completed in the Hurricane Irma program. 233 are in construction and 58 in pre-construction.  But we’ve heard from some who are back in their homes, and still waiting for repairs like Stevens. The disabled veteran got a new house through the program.

First Coast News partnered with the investigations team at 10 Tampa Bay to dig into Rebuild Florida.

Investigative reporter Jennifer Titus met many people who felt failed by the program. 

“They’re like trapped. If you look at these contracts, they can’t get out and if they do get out, they have to pay everything that’s already been done. And we are talking people who disabled, elderly, and low income and they just can’t afford to get out,” Titus said.

Together we reached out to state lawmakers and state agencies for answers. When we requested the complaints submitted through Rebuild Florida’s website, we were told it would cost $4,830 for our records request to be fulfilled.

“There’s still a whole list of repairs that that they need to do that they haven’t done,” Robert Brookens told us when we visited his Baker County home.

“You can’t leave a voicemail because their voicemails are full. You send an email if you’re lucky you get a reply, or you get a standard reply, ‘I’ll look into that.’ I have quite a few of those,” Brookens said.

He and his wife, Lisa, say they filed numerous complaints with different state agencies and they all went right back to Rebuild Florida.

“I do feel like we’ve been scammed. Well, we got nothing near what they promised,” Robert Brookens said.

We took the concerns of the homeowners we spoke with straight to Tallahassee, to the head of FloridaCommerce, Secretary Alex Kelly. We asked him why it’s taken so long for Mary Gill to get her roof repaired.

“Unfortunately, she’s never actually been in the program. She applied well more than a year after the program’s application window closed. So, she’s never actually been in the program,” Kelly answered.

So why has she been waiting for an environmental review?

“We don’t know why she would be waiting for an environmental review. I’m not sure what the confusion can be. We’re happy to talk to her,” Kelly said. 

So will she get her roof repaired? FloridaCommerce says she applied after resources for the program were well beyond fully committed.

“She was never accepted into the program,” Kelly said. 

Gill says she doesn’t understand why as recently as this month, Rebuild still hasn’t told her that she’s not eligible when called to ask the status of her case.

“I want to see my roof fixed, so I can live in peace,” Gill said. “That’s it. I want to see my roof fixed.”

If you have an experience with Rebuild Florida you want to share with us, you can email hcrawford2@firstcoastnews.com.

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