Florida pushes back against Biden administration denying aid to seniors who survived tornadoes

Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials on Friday met with the survivors and publicly urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reverse its decision denying Florida’s Individual Assistance request.

Published: February 18, 2022 3:36pm

Updated: February 18, 2022 11:40pm

(The Center Square) -

Another storm is brewing in Florida between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Biden administration, this time over relief for seniors who survived tornadoes that hit Southwest Florida last month.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials on Friday met with the survivors and publicly urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reverse its decision denying Florida’s Individual Assistance request.

“Floridians shouldn’t be punished for a disaster that was outside their control because of White House politics,” DeSantis said. “The scope of devastation in these communities makes it clear that survivors need additional assistance and I’m urging the Biden administration to reconsider its decision. The state of Florida stands with the residents of Charlotte and Lee counties and will work hard to secure all forms of disaster assistance.”

DeSantis, FDEM Director Kevin Guthrie and local officials toured the remaining damaged areas in Charlotte and Lee counties Friday after hearing earlier this week that requests for federal assistance had been denied.

After waiting a month for a response, Floridians mostly dependent on Social Security income learned on Tuesday they’d been denied assistance by the Biden administration.

On Jan. 16, tornadoes touched down in Placida, in Charlotte County, and in Iona, in Lee County. A total of 158 homes were either totally destroyed or sustained major damage. The majority of residents impacted were seniors; 84% dependent on Social Security income to live, according to an assessment by the state.

The Florida Department of Emergency Management deployed disaster recovery teams to help residents and assess the damage. They worked with county and federal agencies, including FEMA agents who came to survey the damage in person.

DeSantis issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency for both counties and requested a major disaster declaration from the Biden administration. Florida offered aid through its Individual Assistance program and requested assistance from FEMA.

But FEMA denied Florida’s request.

In a letter to DeSantis, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said, “the damage from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies. Accordingly, we have determined that supplemental federal assistance is not necessary.”

Some storm victims were shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was frightening, the most frightening thing to ever happen to me,” Ed Murray, an Iona resident and tornado survivor, said. "And then to have some government agency say that this is not a tragedy, 22 years of memories, your children and pets all in danger. This has got to be wrong.”

Lee County Sherriff Carmine Marceno said the decision by FEMA was another failure by the Biden administration.

“In seconds and minutes, their lives were turned upside down. To say it was devastating is an understatement,” Lee County Sherriff Carmine Marceno said. “Talk about the Biden administration and their continuous failures. We have seen them fail on the international level, the national level and now the state and unfortunately the local level. The governor said it right, it’s about being a human being and doing what is right and thank God for our great governor that stands for just that."

Florida is appealing the decision. FDEM is also identifying other forms of disaster assistance that may be available to help residents.

“For the last month, residents in Charlotte and Lee Counties have been navigating the difficult recovery process after a series of severe storms brought devastation to their communities,” Guthrie said. “As their state partners, it’s our responsibility to fight for these Floridians and ensure they have every resource to help them recover.”

“We were devastated when this happened, we just couldn’t believe it,” Ellie Costalas, another Iona resident and tornado survivor, said. "You don’t know if the insurance company is going to come through or if you can get a contractor you trust. We thank the governor for supporting us so much.”

During the state’s assessments, it discovered that some survivors were forced to stay with neighbors to remain near their damaged homes. With a high percentage of both older adults and destroyed homes, there’s a risk of their health declining due to displacement and unstable housing, FDEM warns.

The tornadoes were brought on by a severe weather system impacting portions of Southwest Florida. It generated heavy rain, thunderstorms, strong straight-line winds, and two tornadoes of EF-1 and EF-2 strengths. Widespread power outages occurred and at least 300 people were displaced from their homes.

According to the National Weather Service, EF-1 tornadoes have an estimated wind speed of 86-100 mph; EF-2 an estimated 111-135 mph. Tornadoes are rated on a scale of zero to five, with five being the most violent.

Charlotte County residents can receive assistance through the Charlotte County Human Services Department. The Charlotte Community Foundation set up a disaster relief fund for the victims and is providing direct financial assistance. CCF will match the first $15,000 in donations it receives.

Lee County residents who’ve been unable to visit the Multi-Agency Resource Center can receive assistance by calling 239-533-7900 or emailing ionatornado@leegov.com . The Lee County Department of Community Development is answering questions and providing resources to those impacted.

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