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Disabled Floridians say homes replaced by the state after Irma are riddled with problems
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Disabled Floridians say homes replaced by the state after Irma are riddled with problems

  • PublishedMay 20, 2024


One disabled veteran says the workmanship on his home is ‘shoddy’ and he has safety concerns. A year after it was finished, he still hasn’t gotten help.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, the state launched a program to help some of the most vulnerable residents get their homes repaired or replaced at no cost to the homeowner. About 4,000 applicants joined The Rebuild Florida Hurricane Irma Housing Repair and Replacement Program (HRRP), including Anthony Stevens of Jacksonville. Stevens, a disabled veteran, was awarded a new house.

“The workmanship is shabby,” Stevens said. “When you shut the door, you’ll see the gaps on the bottom and top.”


It’s been about a year since Stevens got the keys to him home. But while giving a tour to First Coast News, he pointed out a litany of problems. He ever imagined his new house would come with so many issues.

“Number one is the garbage disposal, hasn’t worked from day one,” Stevens said. “There’s no button, no switch, never connected.”


Almost a year after he got the keys, he showed us why he has concerns for his safety, pointing to the breaker box.

“This is supposed to be 30 amps and it’s only 15 amps. You could have an electrical fire,” Stevens said. “There was supposed to have been a walk through by Rebuild Florida and the contractor even before I even got the house.”

From the floors to the roof, he says the problems persist.

“They told me that they would provide the first year flood insurance,” Stevens said. “When  I called Rebuild Florida, they told me that they ran out of money and they’re not going to do that. I’ve got to get the flood insurance myself.”

Stevens says waiting for Rebuild has taken a toll on him.

“They were supposed to take care of the problems and they have not. I have not even gotten paperwork from Rebuild Florida concerning the construction of the home. I’m still waiting on them. I talked to everyone in Tallahassee, and I get nothing but the runaround,” Stevens said. “I’m very frustrated.”

Disabled couple says their home was ‘nothing like what they promised’

 It’s a stress Robert and Lisa Brookens know all too well. 

“This whole ordeal has been constantly on my mind because of all the anxiety and stress on a person — that’s not a healthy person to begin with, because we’re both disabled,” Lisa Brookens said.


Their Baker County home was marked complete in March 2024.

“We just waited and waited and waited, sent emails and phone calls, just wondering what was happening. And it took until November of 2022 for them to give us this home, which was nothing like what they promised, same type and size home,” Robert Brookens said. “We had no say with anything.”

When they complained, they say they were asked if they wanted to leave the program.

“Every time we complained, ‘So you’re leaving the program? Is that right?’ Because anything that they spent on our house doing what they were doing, we would have to pay back,” Robert Brookens said.  

His project cost more than $247,000.

“Which blows our mind when we look at this house and property and the condition it was left, that they could charge the program that much,” Lisa Brookens said.
              
The Brookens showed us a list of repairs they had been waiting for Rebuild to fix.

“They left roots you saw the piles of roots that literally I had to walk around with a cane and chop out with a machete myself,” Robert Brookens said.

Watchdog group says transparency is ‘lacking’

First Coast News has been investigating Rebuild Florida in partnership with 10 Tampa Bay.

Like many we spoke with, the Brookens say they complained repeatedly to state agencies and lawmakers, but their complaints were forwarded right back to Rebuild Florid.
 
“That’s where the problem is, Rebuild Florida,” Robert Brookens said. “I don’t see any oversight, I think somebody needs to come in and go through it all case by case and, and there should be an investigation.”

“If we were told about it, about how the program really worked, we might not have even gotten involved in the program,” Lisa Brookens said. “You don’t promise people something and then pull the rug out from under them.”

From years of delays to soaring costs we looked over dozens of contracts and found projects that doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in price from the original amount awarded to the contractor. One going from $18,000 to $265,000, another one jumping from $97,000 to $330,000.

We shared our findings with Sean Moulton with the nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The transparency that Florida has provided around this project is really lacking. The information is posted online, but it’s essentially a giant filing cabinet for thousands of projects,” Moulton said. “It makes it incredibly difficult to really get a sense of how widespread the problems are in this program.”  

We compiled clips of homeowners we interviewed and took that video to State Senator Clay Yarborough.

“I hate to hear that there’s so many left out there that still haven’t had the repairs completed or the rebuild done. But we just have to keep pushing and making sure we keep accountability on the program with our tax dollars,” Yarborough said.

He reached out to Rebuild Florida and helped get the ball rolling for the homeowners we spoke with who felt neglected.

“If anyone has an issue out there and they’re not getting through, they are welcome to call my office, we will get on the phone with the department, and we will ensure that they get a response,” Yarborough said.

Secretary Alex Kelly says contractors ‘lied,’ ‘failed’ recipients 

Then we went to Tallahassee to sit down with the head of FloridaCommerce, Secretary Alex Kelly and Justin Domer, Director of the Office of Long-Term Resiliency. We asked them about the spike in costs.

“Overall,  those few cases where the costs were higher were exceptions,” Kelly said. “There was one home in the program that the contractor didn’t realize until they started working on the home, that it was actually a historically registered property. So, once they started the project, the contractor had to finish it.”

That 1500 square foot home in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood went from a $103,000 project to $877,000.  

“I will say because of that literally individual single home, we don’t cover historically registered properties anymore,” Kelly said.

He says inflation, supply chain issues and expanded scopes of work factored into the costs of the projects increasing.  

“Thankfully, the average cost for the Hurricane Irma program is actually still, per home, one of our cheapest programs we’ve ever had, in terms of the cost for whether it’s repairs or rebuilds,” Kelly said.

As for the long delays for the homeowners we spoke with, after we started asking questions FloridaCommerce put boots on the ground and sent employees to see firsthand dozens of homes we told them about across the state including the Brookens’ new mobile home.

“We as a state now have to step in because our contractors failed Robert, they failed others, and they literally lied on the forms. They literally lied in the inspections in someone like Robert’s case,” Kelly said. “We have to step in and help someone like Robert. Thankfully, we are not talking about a significant number of people, but each case is not right.”

The day after our interview with FloridaCommerce, a contractor visited the Brookens home to see what needed to be repaired and that week fixed their ramp.

“I think it was meant to be a good program,” Lisa Brookens said. “They just didn’t watchdog it very well. You know, somebody should have been overseeing it better.”

IEM, the company awarded a $252 million contract to administer the Rebuild Florida Irma Program, declined our requests for an interview but sent us a list of responses to our questions, and a video message from the company’s CEO.

READ MORE: Company hired to run Rebuild Florida Irma program responds to allegations of wrongdoing

“We’ve completed over 95% of the project, and won’t stop until our contract is finished,” IEM wrote in a statement, going on to say:

“In our proud 39-year history, IEM has earned a reputation for integrity, trust and outstanding service and meeting the challenges of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Our dedicated five-year work on Rebuild Florida has been challenging and complicated, but IEM has made it a priority to help all qualified residents rebuild their homes and their lives,” IEM CEO Bryan Koon said. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma through IEMs efforts, more than 8,000 Floridians have returned to 3,652 homes with another 93 homes that are construction complete and pending inspections. That’s 95+% of IEMs total 3930 homes, leaving 185 that are pending construction completion, or less than 5% remaining. We will complete the majority of the remaining 185 homes by the end of the contract.”

The contract ends in July 2024.

As for Stevens, he is still waiting for Rebuild Florida to fix his home and is eager to see the problems resolved.

“I upheld my part of the bargain,” Stevens said. “Why can’t you? And they have not.”


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



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