FEMA Grant Myths

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The most frequent questions I receive concern the FEMA grant we applied for in 2001.

I would like to clarify why we qualified for this grant. Most importantly, and perhaps most disappointingly, IT WAS NOT A GRANT TO BUILD A DOME.
Although I think it would be a terrific idea, I am not aware of any FEMA grants specifically for building domes. To provide incentives to build structures able to fema_grant_myth_1withstand the environment in which they exist makes sense. Lots full of FEMA trailers rot where they sit, at a ridiculous price of $70,000 each. Why not offer a $70,000 incentive to build a structure that has a better chance of surviving Mother Nature’s fury? It might even reduce FEMA’s overall expenses. However, if anyone has any information concerning grants for building domes, please contact me so I can pass the information along to interested parties. 850-723-5107

In the spring of 2001, we received a letter from the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program stating that we, along with 10,000 + other Escambia County residents, were eligible to apply for a grant to mitigate further flood damage to our existing home – which was a 1971 ground level concrete block home. There was a meeting we could attend, but alas, the letter was dated after the date of the meeting. That was a sign.

I threw the letter away immediately. Government red tape? No thanks, I didn’t need the headaches. However, Fate had other ideas. Normally, I shred all my personal documents, but my shredder had a melt down after the tax season paperwork I had just finished. I hadn’t replaced the shredder in my office, so I just threw the offer in the kitchen trash. For reasons neither of us can remember, Mark came home and started digging through the trash.

He picks up the letter, looks at me and asks, “What’s this?” “A headache I don’t need,” I reply. Much to my dismay, he thought we should check into it. I gave him “The Look” and he quickly said he would call and find out about it. Evidently, it was a new program designed to help people make alterations to their homes to lessen the risk of flooding. Being a new program, no one knew much of anything. Eventually, we did manage to meet with a FEMA official and Bob, the Escambia county official that would be facilitating the paperwork process between FEMA, the county, and those awarded the grant. Less than 15 people showed up for the meeting. Out of 10,000+ ? That should have been a sign. By the end of the meeting, only one other family besides us decided to pursue the grant.

The formula for qualifying is a mystery known only to the privileged few. Not even our county liaison knew what the magic numbers were. The factors considered: X amount of damages X amount of times resulting in X percentage of your home’s destruction with X amount of insurance claims.

The 22 page application became a 3″ binder full of the necessary paperwork and requirements.
The first hurdle was persuading FEMA that it was impossible to mitigate further flood damage to our concrete block house by elevating it. Once we convinced the powers that be that we needed to bulldoze our existing home, we proceeded with presenting our idea of a monolithic dome structure. Not only would it be less likely to flood, the dome had many features that would make it hurricane resistant. Its shape would cause the wind and water to go around it, offering less resistance; its weight of 800+ tons made it unlikely to be swept away by flood waters; its durability of construction materials made it less likely to be damaged by winds; its monolithic construction meant there was no roof to blow off in high winds.

Mark said this home was so unusual that it would catch the attention of FEMA’s key players and pass through the hierarchy quickly. He was right. Still….

The red tape hoops were beyond belief and (surprise! surprise!) many times made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
For instance, we had a concrete block home so elevating the existing structure was not even an option. Yet, we were required to get three estimates from three contractors of what it would cost to elevate our existing home. How were we supposed to find contractors who would spend all that energy developing an estimate for a project they knew would never happen? That’s just one example, I will spare you the rest.

Well, maybe just a few more. We were on such a tight time schedule that there was no time to have engineering and architectural plans drawn up. We had to estimate the cost of construction and submit the amount without a professional’s proposal. With just a conceptual drawing and a dream, we submitted a rough estimate. The FEMA official told us that we would be able to increase that amount by 20% once construction began. No, it wasn’t in writing. And by time we were at the actual construction stage, the official making this promise no longer worked for the agency. Another sign things were a bit unorganized in FEMA’s offices.

FEMA actually gave the grant to Escambia County; Escambia County then would reimburse us as we turned in receipts. Now, just getting to the point of completing the grant paperwork – not even knowing if we would be accepted – cost us $12,000. The money we spent was a gamble, there were no guarantees.

Obviously, we were accepted and given approximately a $200,000 grant, but we had to wait on the county to reimburse us. I can see the wisdom in not giving people the money before they paid the expenses since the money could be spent before there was a structure. It was difficult to meet all of their requirements the way the grant procedure was organized.

Then, there was the ridiculous time schedule we had to adhere to. If our home wasn’t completed by the deadline, we forfeited the grant. Okay….. First of all, FEMA was late issuing the original letters so any applicants missed important informational meetings. After turning in the paperwork and being accepted, the County Commissioners had to sign papers agreeing to accept the grant from FEMA. No brainer, right? Well, it seems some of our county commissioners were allegedly involved in some fishy, stinky business deals. The signing of our paperwork was postponed for months while their personal/business lives were in turmoil. Yet, FEMA still had their deadline for us regardless of the extenuating circumstances involving Escambia County – who FEMA had the contract with. FEMA’s contract was with Escambia County and then we had a contract with Escambia County.

On top of all that mess, we met resistance from some of the members of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. Even though we had been approved by FEMA, no less, some members thought they knew better. Thankfully, with a few angels by our side, they eventually approved our plans to build the Dome of a Home on Pensacola Beach.

We got a very late start, had issues with the contractor. But, with the heroic efforts of my husband. we did manage to complete the job on time.

Of course, the expenses were much more than the quick estimate we originally gave FEMA. When I inquired about the extra 20% we were promised, I was quickly dismissed. No one knew anything about that, the gentleman who had promised that option was gone, there was nothing in writing, the fiscal year had ended, and we had a new administration in the White House. Basically, I was told to give it up.

I am stubborn, people who know me will attest to that. So, I asked our county liaison if he would forward a letter to FEMA if I wrote it. He shook his head and told me I was wasting my time, but that he would get it to the powers that be if I took the time to compose it. I did.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I received a strange call. Someone claiming to be Santa Clause was asking for me. I identified myself and Bob, our county liaison, gleefully informed me that Santa Clause had delivered a check to his desk for the other 20% I had requested. He was as shocked as I was, never anticipating that the additional money would be granted. I cried, laughed, and jumped for joy. It was a moment of elation when I knew we were doing the right thing in building the Dome. I knew we were on our Path, so to speak. Finally, a good sign! I needed several of those during the construction process. I have never been so crazy in all my life. I do believe building a house is one of the most stressful activities ever.

The misconceptions about the house and the grant were another source of stress.
Because the house received a lot of local media attention, I had a significant amount of feedback from the public. We had many encouraging calls and visits, but I also received a few disturbing calls from people who were misinformed about the grant. In response to a letter written to the editor of the Pensacola News Journal, I wrote the following letter and it was published by the paper.

Myths About the Project

Apparently, there are misconceptions about the dome being built on Pensacola Beach. Most of these concern the grant we received. While we cannot address every issue, there are a few myths that we feel require clarification.

Myth: Taxpayers are paying for the flood mitigation assistance program grant we received

Taxpayers’ money does not fund this grant, nor subsidize the insurance policies that we purchase. The grant and our policies are a closed system. Only those who receive policies pay for the policies. Based on our repetitive losses, FMAP decided that it would be more cost effective for them to insure a house that meets current codes, rather than to continue to pay claims.

Myth: We were “GIVEN” a grant

To complete the application process, we had to invest over $12,000. There were no guarantees that we would be accepted for the grant and able to recover even a portion of this money. We had to be willing to risk completely losing the $12,000 investment. The grant process was definitely not free.

Myth: We received $500,000

We wish! The grant only covered a small portion of the structural costs. We received under $250,000