The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved the Town of Hilton Head Island’s request for debris removal from private roads and rights-of-way — with some conditions — under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program, Gov. Nikki Haley’s office announced Wednesday night.
The following communities are covered under the approval, according to a FEMA letter, dated Wednesday and released by the Governor’s Office to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette:
▪ Hilton Head Plantation
▪ Indigo Run Plantation
▪ Palmetto Dunes Resort
▪ Palmetto Hall Plantation
▪ Port Royal Plantation
▪ Sea Pines Plantation
▪ Shipyard Plantation
▪ Spanish Wells
▪ Wexford Plantation
The following six properties have been approved by FEMA for private-property debris removal, “pending the submission of additional documentation,” according to the letter from W. Michael Moore, federal coordinating officer and disaster recovery manager with FEMA to Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley and Kim Stenson, the S.C. Emergency Management Division director:
▪ Cedar Wells Apartments
▪ Leamington Association
▪ Long Cove Club Owner’s Association
▪ Sea Pines Resort
▪ Squire Pope Mobile Home Park
▪ Sylby Tub Apartments
“Any other areas where private property debris removal is in the public interest will be considered on a case-by- case basis,” the letter said, noting those requests must be submitted “within 90 days of the date of this letter.”
FEMA’s approval requires the town to “provide a full and complete roster of all private property onto which it entered to remove debris under this authority,” and to “assist the federal government in recovering any insurance proceeds after a reasonable search to ascertain from the property owners any insurance proceeds that they may have been paid for such debris removal under this program,” the letter said.
Debris from “vacant lots, forests, heavily wooded areas, unimproved property, and unused areas” is not covered under the approval, according to the letter. In addition, FEMA’s Public Assistance Program “generally prohibits removal of debris from commercial properties,” the letter said.
“This is great news and what we were hoping for,” Riley said.
Beaufort County’s application is still under review, but state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, did not seem worried.
“My sense is that it’s a paperwork delay,” he said Wednesday evening. “It’d be hard to allow it on Hilton Head and not the rest of Beaufort County.”
FEMA received the town’s application last Friday. Beaufort County has been providing additional paperwork to FEMA over the past week.
Beaufort County’s application
If FEMA approves the county’s application, Hilton Head’s non-gated communities that require additional paperwork under the town’s application would be covered under the county’s, deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said.
To bolster the county’s case for federal reimbursement of cleanup on private roads, the County Council voted to declare a state-of-health emergency Monday night.
By issuing the proclamation, the county has legal authority to clear debris from private roads and rights-of-way, Gruber said. It also helps their case for federal reimbursement, he said.
But the action also means Beaufort County assumes responsibility for the cost of clearing private roads and rights-of-way if FEMA denies the county’s reimbursement request.
“We’re really sort of playing chicken with FEMA thinking we’re going to force their hand on this, but if they don’t, there’s a severe penalty to us,” council vice chair Jerry Stewart said.
The county’s contract for debris removal on public roads alone is nearly $10 million.
If the feds deny reimbursement, private roads would add at least another $10 million to the county’s bill.
A denial would severely deplete the county’s existing reserve fund, which hovers around $26 million, and leave local officials scrambling to replace reserves in anticipation of the next storm.
“It will cost millions, and it is risky,” county administrator Gary Kubic said.
But it’s also necessary.
“Without you all passing this resolution, it is a certainty that we will not be able to get FEMA aid,” U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, said.
The irony of the situation is not lost on council members.
“FEMA has put us between a rock and a hard spot,” Stewart said. “The county has to make a commitment prior to knowing what we’re committing to.”
Just one council member, Bill McBride, opposed the proclamation because it could potentially relieve the hardest-hit areas of financial responsibility and impose the cost onto all of county residents, he said.
McBride represents portions of Beaufort, Lady’s Island, St. Helena Island and Parris Island.
“(You’re) asking people who can barely make ends meet from payday to payday to come up with additional taxes to help people who probably least need the help,” he said.
Cynthia Bensch, who represents Bluffton, pointed out that residents of gated communities pay for their own infrastructure — as well as for the lion’s share of taxes.
“Everyone needs to consider the state-of-the-art public facilities we enjoy because of the ad valorem tax of the gated communities,” she said.
In one of the state’s wealthiest counties, the council’s vote illustrates the clash of the haves and the have-nots.
The argument against assisting gated communities is targeted to make “those people that have worked hard and happened to have made a lot of money ... feel bad that they did so,” Bensch said.
Hurricane Matthew’s inconsistent path, slamming some areas and leaving others unscathed, prompted Bensch to pose another hypothetical, one that left gated communities in tact.
“If those neighborhoods that weren’t hit were hit, I can assure you they would expect those that live in gated communities to pay for it if the gated communities weren’t touched at all,” she said.
McBride pointed to some of the mobile homes in his district and said it would be “very, very difficult” to ask these residents to pay more in taxes.
Other council members agreed with McBride’s rationale but still voted in favor of the proclamation.
Matthew didn’t hit the Burton and Lobeco areas hard, so council member Gerald Dawson said taxing “those individuals is going to be a hard pill to swallow,” but he “understand(s) this is a countywide effort.”
Kubic stressed the discussion at hand is still hypothetical and hinges on FEMA denying the county’s reimbursement request.
If and when that happens, specific municipalities’ financial contributions would be considered, he said.
Still, his Wednesday remarks seemed to side with the council majority.
“Indirectly, everyone is going to share in this cost no matter what,” he said. “In the end, all of it falls upon every taxpayer. We are a single community.”
County officials emphasized that cleanup won’t start until FEMA makes a decision. Doing so would jeopardize reimbursement, they say.