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In the wake of Irma: Still no seawalls

By Staff | Dec 28, 2017

The most visible signs of Hurricane Irma have been dragged away: the storm create 3 million cubic yards of debris.

But for many, damage remains from the storm’s state-wide destruction of seawalls.

Seawalls are kept upright by a balanced pressure from the water on one side and the land, called upland pressure, from the other.

When the hurricane’s low pressure and winds sucked the water out of the canals and away from the seawall, it lost one side of pressure. At the same time, the upland pressure increased, causing seawalls to crumble or “kick” from the bottom. And, they can’t just be pushed back into place. They have to be rebuilt.

The issue has left many property owners trying to figure out what to do, but even those ready to pay a contractor to rebuild are in a queue that could last months.

Sen. Bill Nelson visited Fort Myers and the home of Howard Wheeler, president of Chris-Tel Construction, in September. Wheeler wanted to show the congressman the damage that many were facing.

Nelson encouraged everyone to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency money and Small Business Association disaster loans, which are granted at a low interest rate.

That’s what Wheeler did, but he was hoping the government would do more.

“I do know they’re processing (the loan), I’ve been getting followup calls,” Wheeler said. “I was hoping they’d look at it as a property de-valuation.”

Seawalls are not covered under most homeowners or flood insurance, even though it is technically part of the owner’s property. Wheeler was hoping instead of low-interest loans, the government would opt for some kind of bail-out system, as it did during the real estate implosion and economic downturn of 2009.

“They literally bailed out the failing financial institutions. If a natural disaster devalued your property, I had hoped they would take that as a real estate devaluation, more than just damaged property,” Wheeler said.

According to an email from FEMA, as of Dec. 19 Lee County had received $47.7 million in approved grants from the agency with 125,711 registrants. Lee County received one of the highest amounts of funding for the state’s western counties. More than $1 billion in SBA loan interest loans were approved in the first 100 days after the hurricane, the press release stated.

Rita Egan, spokeswoman for FEMA, said in an interview Dec. 15 that the majority of FEMA grants are applied to housing assistance for those found eligible, such as rental assistance, moving to another location or renting somewhere else until someone’s home was repaired. FEMA’s deadline for transitional shelter assistance has been extended through Jan. 6.

About one third of the $47.7 million went to personal property or primary vehicle repair, she said.

Egan said the decision to give a FEMA grant or an SBA loan was done on a case by case basis, depending on the loss suffered.

“FEMA is here to get you started on recovery. SBA can get you back to where you were,” she said.

Egan warned those who received FEMA grants to use the funds on what it was given for and to keep receipts: FEMA will conduct random audits

The loans, while less expensive with a low interest rate, will still cost homeowners.

Mike and Jewel Hall of San Carlos Island returned after the storm to find a failed seawall and a sinkhole next to their home on Emily Lane. The erosion from the sinkhole caused their house to shift, and part of the ceiling cracked.

Mike Hall applied for a SBA loan to help pay for the repairs. He had wind, flood and homeowners insurance that covered the damage to his house, but none of those covered the cost of filling in the sink hole or repairing his seawall.

He got the sinkhole filled as soon as he could – which was the week of Dec. 11. He’s still waiting for contractors to fix the roof of his lanai, his ceiling and his seawall.

“Everyone’s busy, even for the small things,” he said.

Because of his insurance coverage, Hall decided not to apply for FEMA funds. Instead, he qualified for the loan.

Hall was happy enough with the results: he was approved for a $25,000 loan at 1.75 percent interest to be paid out over 15 years.

“To me that’s like free money,” he said, adding that he believed his credit score helped him land a better deal.

He’s already got a contractor lined up for the seawall repair. He checked around at a few different companies and chose Banks Brothers Marine because the company is local and gave him a bid he could live with: $22,000 for the rebuild.

The company said they’d get to his project before the rainy season, and he said their estimate was around April.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. Emily Lane alone has 26 walls to be repaired, and it’s a statewide problem.

Brent Stokes, owner of Stokes Marine, said his company has been working six days a week to keep up with the workload as well as routine dock and boat lift jobs. His company has already helped fix a lot of walls he said, and many people still with wall problems are still working out how to pay for the repairs. What’s more, Stokes has been trying to hire additional help to handle the workload, but said the job market is “tight right now.”

“Many more walls are under contract and on the schedule well into the next year,” he said in an email. “The worst walls are the highest priority.”