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2,000 Floridians await help from state for Hurricane Irma damage in 2017

Florida awarded $516M in 2018 to repair homes
YE Hurricane Irma
Posted at 11:22 AM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 11:22:27-05

In 2018, Florida received $516 million to help thousands of Hurricane Irma victims with repairs and rebuilds of family homes. But more than four years after the storm, fewer than half of the repair projects have been completed.

Hurricane Irma ripped off part of John Vargas' roof when it tore through Brandon in 2017.

YE--Google 2017
FILE - In this geocolor GOES-16 file satellite image taken Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, at 11:45 UTC, sunlight, from the right, illuminates Hurricane Irma as the storm approaches Cuba and Florida. Irma was one of the top searches on Google in 2017. (NOAA via AP, File)

A tarp proved no match for Florida's heavy rains and wandering wildlife. Soon after the storm Vargas, a disabled Army veteran, said his home started rotting from the inside out.

"There is nothing left — literally, there is nothing left," Vargas said.

Cooking mostly outside, Vargas keeps his clothes in an outdoor shed. He does what he can to keep his small sleeping area free of mold and insects.

In 2019, a ray of hope arrived in the form of a phone call from the state's Rebuild Florida program.

HUD granted Rebuild Florida, which DEO runs, over $516 million in 2018 specifically to repair and rebuild the homes of those hardest hit by Hurricane Irma like Vargas.

In March of 2021, the state sent John an award letter. It said, "Your existing home will be demolished and replaced with a new housing unit."

But nearly a year later, Vargas, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while in the service, said he's still waiting for help to arrive.

"They always tell me to be patient. They always tell me I am first on the list, and they are going to investigate it," he said.

The I-Team found that Vargas is one of more than 4,000 Florida homeowners approved for the Rebuild Florida program that launched in 2018.

He's one of about 400 hurricane victims still waiting for work to start and the 2,000 still waiting for projects to be completed.

Disaster Aid
FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2017, file photo, debris scatters a destroyed community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. The Senate is pushing ahead on a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package that would give Puerto Rico a much-needed infusion of cash but rejects requests from the powerful Texas and Florida congressional delegations for additional money to rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The measure is sure to sail through a Monday, Oct. 23, procedural vote and a final vote is expected no later than Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

No one from the DEO, which oversees the Rebuild Florida program, would answer our questions on camera. Still, a spokesperson told us in an email that "his (Vargas) Rebuild Florida case manager will be able to assist him getting things lined up and moving."

Vicky and Wendall Williams say Rebuild Florida approved them for a mobile home replacement in 2020. Rebuild Florida delivered a mobile home to their lot last September, but it has yet to pass a final inspection.

"Once it was delivered, it just sat here with no one working on it, no one doing anything," Vicky Williams said.

I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway asked the agency about the Williams' case. Days later, the agency called the couple to tell them "construction would be complete at the end of this month," Vicky Williams said.

Florida’s Political Climate Change
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2017 file photo, waves crash over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay, Fla., as Hurricane Irma passes by in Miami. In his first 10 months in office, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed a science officer, established a czar on climate change and pushed action against red tide and algae blooms. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The I-Team first questioned Rebuild Florida about the program's progress last April after finding disabled retiree Michael Rose living in a storm-ravaged mobile home without running water. Rebuild Florida approved Rose for a replacement mobile home in 2019.


"It is a long time to live like this," Rose said at the time.

After being contacted by ABC Action News, the agency put Rose up in a hotel and delivered his new mobile home soon after. He moved in last September.

The program has picked up speed in recent months finishing around 500 more projects since Rose's story aired last fall. The agency said it added staff and reported a 918% increase in completed projects since 2020.

HUD extended the deadline for Florida to spend down the $516 million. The state has until 2025, or it risks the government reclaiming the funds.