FEMA's 'hard deadline' for debris removal could potentially bankrupt Florida town

Fort Myers Beach debris
Posted at 12:23 PM, Oct 19, 2022

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Monday saw the start of a temporary split access plan for the town of Fort Myers Beach, which will only allow residents on the island Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the foreseeable future.

According to Councilman Bill Veach, this was a request set by Lee County to speed up the debris removal process.

"It feels like your heart got torn out," said Steve Duello, a resident of Fort Myers Beach. “My mom and dad brought it in ’83.”

Duello is completely heartbroken after losing his family home of nearly 40 years because of Hurricane Ian. He said his cinderblock home was like a fortress and where he and his family escaped Missouri's bitterly cold winters.

“We spend about seven to eight months of the year down here; my grandkids love it. My boys and their wives all love it,” Duelllo said.

But through love comes pain. Duello said his home would be flattened—even more painful, he said, was learning about the town's decision to restrict what days residents like him have access to their property.

“It’s the worst thing I’ve gone through; there are a lot of worst things to go through, but this is my worst,” Duello said.

Veach's response to residents who are heartbroken about the limited access was that if the debris removal process isn't conducted in a timely manner, it will have a high cost.

"This was actually brought up by the county. The county was gracious enough to take over debris removal, which is a huge expense," Veach explained.

An expense that he said could cost millions of dollars. Veach added that debris removal is a top priority, mainly with the hard deadline set by FEMA.

"We have 60 days to do that,” Veach said.

After those 60 days, FEMA will stop covering the costs, leaving a bill of millions.

"If we end up getting straddled with the expenses—even a small portion, it could bankrupt the town,“ Veach said.

This is why the county requested to limit residents on the island on certain days while essential response teams are working.

“When they are stuck in traffic like we were stuck in traffic, they are not doing their job,” Councilman Veach said.

The town announced that 96 percent of power lines had been restored on Estero Boulevard, which gave Duello a silver lining to his dark cloud.

“It’s nice to see some light on Estero Boulevard. Things have been so dark and gloomy,” Duello said. "Now there’s at least some lights on. So yeah, it is a little bit good. I’m struggling to find anything good right now."

Councilman Veach said with so much "devastation" on the island. The county isn't sure if it can get all the debris removed in 60 days and might have to request another extension from FEMA.

Briana Brownlee at WFTX first reported this story.