The city of Fernandina Beach has spent millions of dollars on repairs, replacements, and upgrades to the city-owned Fernandina Harbor Marina since it was damaged during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. City Manager Dale Martin says the city performed that work after being assured by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials that if the cost to repair damages exceeded 50% of the cost of replacement, FEMA would pay 75% of the replacement cost. In turn, Martin assured the citizens.
But in June, FEMA advised the city it would not cover 75% of the cost to replace many parts of the marina because it does not believe those damages required replacement. Instead of reimbursing the city for 75% of $6.5 million, FEMA now says it will give the city 75% of a new total: $1.6 million.
How FEMA and the city came to this place is a long, complicated tale of a single document that the city says it never received, yet on which FEMA based the final amount it says it is obligated to pay.
The lost document
“(A form signed by a FEMA official) says this project qualifies for 75% reimbursement from the feds,” Martin told the News-Leader. “Then the city finally moves forward. We go out for bids. We do the design-build in early 2018 and start the work.”
In February 2017, the city hired Applied Technology & Management to perform a damage assessment of the marina. In that assessment, ATM said the marina’s outer wave attenuator dock was damaged beyond repair.
“Dock 1, the Wave Attenuator, Fuel Station, and associated piles are considered damaged beyond repair. They should be removed from the site and replaced with new piles and floats,” the assessment says.
In a Cost Estimating Format dated June 2017, FEMA worked out a formula for granting money to the city for the cost of those repairs: “The repair estimated cost is $3,986,769 and the replacement estimated cost is $4,855,583. (This did not include the check-in facility building.) The 50% rule was applied to the Dock 1 repairs using the following calculation: $3,986,768 base dock 1 repair cost divided by $4,855,583 base dock replacement costs equals 0.821069 x 100 equals 82.16% repair vs. replacement; therefore dock 1 meets FEMA requirement for replacement.”
Martin said Charles Loihle was contracted by FEMA to work with the city after the hurricane, from May to June 2017. Martin said Loihle got an additional estimate of costs to repair the marina from Bellingham, the manufacturer of the docks at the marina. That estimate seems to be at the heart of the controversy.
“(Loihle) worked with Bellingham and got this repair estimate,” Martin told the News-Leader as he has explained at public meetings. “That document was never given to the city. That’s the lost document. The city was never given it, and we didn’t lose it. At this time (June 2017), no one knows the document is lost. We are assuming (Loihle) has it.
“Even with that document, he completed a CEF, a Cost Estimating Format, which basically said it does exceed the 50% threshold. That was the second independent source (in addition to the ATM damage assessment) that says the docks are damaged and need to be replaced, not repaired. (Loihle’s) number for the entire attenuator, the north where the fuel docks were and the south, was $6.5 million, to replace. Even with him having that Bellingham repair estimate, he submitted the paperwork saying it qualified for replacement.”
After Loihle left Fernandina Beach, another FEMA official, Harissa Ford, also signed a form 90-91 taking data from the CEF, which states that elements of the marina need to be replaced, not repaired.
Loihle no longer works for FEMA. The News-Leader attempted to contact Loihle through his Facebook page, but was unsuccessful. A phone number for him no longer worked, and he did not respond to an email.
“Now I have three people reporting replace it, don’t repair: I have ATM, I have (Loihle) and Harissa Ford,” Martin said.
Then the U.S Army Corps of Engineers required the project to be broken down into two parts due to the marina’s proximity to the Federal Navigational Channel in the Amelia River, causing a further delay of a year.
Another estimate is prepared
“FEMA sends (in) Antoinette Schramm, who prepares another form 90-91. Her estimate is $6.3 million, just for the south. She signs it. It says this project qualifies for 75% reimbursement from the feds. Then the city finally moves forward. We get the channel taken care of. We go out for bids, we do the design-build in early 2018 and start the work,” Martin explained.
FEMA then informed the city that it will not pay 75% of $6.3 million for the work in the southern basin or 75% of the more than $8 million total cost of the repairs for the entire marina.
“Then they finally gave us their revised determination in May 2020,” Martin said.
That number was $1.4 million.
When asked why the amount obligated by FEMA was so much lower than the original estimates to replace the marina, Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, external affairs specialist for FEMA, responded: “Without a complete damage assessment above (and below) the water, FEMA could not verify that the southern attenuator needed to be replaced. FEMA provides funding for eligible disaster-related costs with appropriate and verified documentation to substantiate the loss. Under the Public Assistance Program, it is the (city of Fernandina Beach’s) responsibility to assess damages related to the disaster and provide documentation to FEMA that substantiates those losses.”
Martin said that in 2019 he began getting communications from FEMA, well after construction had begun, that the agency would pay for the replacements based on the Bellingham estimate. Yet, FEMA did not produce that document.
“In December, there is an email that says FEMA is going to work on it and bring it more into alignment with the Bellingham repair estimate. In March, they hint they have this document,” Martin said. “We told them ‘We’ve never seen it, can you give us a copy of that?’ and they admitted they didn’t have it. So, you’re basing our entire (reimbursement) on a document you don’t have.”
Efforts on the city’s behalf by Congressman John Rutherford have not been able to locate that document either, Martin said.
Bellingham said that, after they did not win a bid to make repairs or replace the attenuator, it deleted the estimate, Martin said.
When asked for a copy of the report by Bellingham, Paulk-Buchanan told the News-Leader, “FEMA only has documentation (the city of Fernandina Beach) provided to substantiate damages. The applicant provided a repair cost estimate from Bellingham which is what the award is based on.”
Yet, Martin said the city does not have that report and never received a copy of it.
FEMA says it must have float damage documentation
Buchanan gave the News-Leader a brief statement regarding the matter:
“Last month, FEMA awarded grants to the state of Florida for two projects to fund repairs to City of Fernandina Beach’s marina damaged by Hurricane Matthew: $471,832 federal share and $980,783 federal share, totaling $1,452,615,” the statement said. “The project award amounts are based on documentation submitted by the applicant (City of Fernandina Beach). The City provided documentation for damage assessments above the water, but did not provide documentation substantiating that all of the floats were damaged beyond repair. Therefore, the damages did not qualify for total replacement during repair and replacement analysis.”
The city will appeal FEMA’s decision, Martin said. He said the deadline to get it to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management is the end of July; then the state has 60 days to get it to FEMA. The federal agency has 90 days for their first level of appeal.
In a June City Commission meeting, Martin said he is working with disaster assistant consultant firm Witt O’Brien’s to submit that appeal. He said that company has indicated the first appeal will probably be rejected, but they think the second appeal, to FEMA’s regional headquarters in Atlanta, will have a better outcome. He said the appeal is his first priority, and he intends to have the process concluded by the end of the year.