The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved Beaufort County’s request for debris removal from private roads and rights-of-way under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program Saturday, according to a letter from FEMA to county administrator Gary Kubic and Kim Stenson, the S.C. Emergency Management Division director.
“We’re very pleased to get permission to move forward with this given the extent of debris on both public and private roads,” deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said.
FEMA’s approval requires the county 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,” according to the letter, which was obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Debris from “vacant lots, forests, heavily wooded areas, unimproved property, and unused areas” is not covered under the approval, W. Michael Moore, federal coordinating officer and disaster recovery manager, wrote in the letter.
In addition, FEMA’s Public Assistance Program “generally prohibits removal of debris from commercial properties,” Moore wrote.
The application’s approval comes with a sigh of relief from county officials.
To bolster the county’s case to FEMA, County Council voted to declare a state-of-health emergency Monday night, which positioned the county to assume full responsibility for the cleanup cost if FEMA denied their 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 at the meeting.
That penalty — estimated to be at least $10 million — put the county at risk of depleting a significant portion of its reserve fund.
But it was a necessary risk.
“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 at the meeting.
County officials will have a conference call with FEMA on Monday.
More than 90 communities made requests to the county for help in removing an estimated one million cubic yards of debris, according to a county press release.
These figures don’t even include the Town of Hilton Head, which filed its own application to FEMA, the release said.
Hilton Head’s application
The Town of Hilton Head Island was approved for the same program last Wednesday, but FEMA requested the “submission of additional paperwork” from six island communities, including Sea Pines Resort and Long Cove Club Owner’s Association, the letter read.
These communities are now included in the countywide application, Gruber said.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, did not seem concerned Wednesday that Hilton Head’s application was approved and the county’s was still under review.
“My sense is that it’s a paperwork delay,” he said that evening. “It’d be hard to allow it on Hilton Head and not the rest of Beaufort County.”
Because FEMA approved both applications, county and town officials will meet to discuss who will pay for the cost not covered by FEMA.
Gruber broke down the percentage of federal reimbursement for debris removal:
▪ For the first 30 days, FEMA will cover 87 percent of the cost.
▪ For the next 60 days, FEMA will cover 82 percent of the cost.
▪ After 90 days, FEMA will cover 75 percent of the cost.
“Based upon council’s actions Monday, the county will be a lead on this,” Gruber said.
Individual plantations who already began debris removal could be reimbursed for already existing work, but could be determined on a case-by-case basis, he said.
“Right now, our focus is on getting (debris) picked up,” he said. “Once that’s done, we can revisit the issue of finances.”