NORTH PORT, Fla. — Homeowners at some mobile home parks in Sarasota are having a sigh of relief after they've gotten much-needed help hauling out Hurricane Ian-related household debris.
A special waiver to the county from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given way to moving out their debris from 13 mobile home parks so far.
With assistance from FEMA, the county has been able to pay for the removal of nearly 9,500 cubic yards of debris at the La Casa park, with nearly 28,000 cubic yards of debris removed from all parks. The homeowners had thought the clean-up would never happen unless they coughed up the money for it through their homeowners' association, but now, they can focus on other aspects of recovery and rebuilding.
"We arrived here Oct. 30, to 12 feet plus of debris which we need to thank the Sarasota county for cleaning it up and the workers for being so friendly. It was probably 15 feet tall and right to the fence when we first arrived," John Braine of Canada said.
John and his wife, Kelly Braine, said they are brand new to the snowbird lifestyle after they purchased their home at the La Casa Mobile Home Park in North Port in 2020. But they have not been able to spend time there because the pandemic occurred and delayed their plans.
They said they have been fixing the house up and preparing to spend time in it this winter but then Hurricane Ian hit and put a halt to those plans also.
Most of the property at the park, which was ruined by the hurricane, then ended up piled up on a 40-acre lot right across from the Braines' new home.
"We had heard that it was going to take years before it was gone and it was devastating to us because we're trying to make plans to stay here," Kelly said.
Certain properties and communities like mobile home parks and some run by a fee-collecting homeowners' association are designated as commercial under FEMA policy and have to fund their hurricane-related debris removal. However, due to the enormity of the damage and debris collected, this put the county at odds with FEMA and meant residents would have had to pay thousands of dollars for cleanup.
"Waste management was not going to pick up the stuff which we pay property taxes for them to do that but debris like this is too much for them," Tim Davis, president of the La Casa Homeowners Association, said.
The county sent a letter to FEMA and asked for a special exception to allow it to remove debris citing unprecedented circumstances. Appeals from elected leaders at local, state and national levels subsequently followed the request.
After considering the situation, the agency approved funding for debris removal from 13 of 33 mobile home parks in the county that immediately qualified for a waiver.
"We know that that's a frustration for people and they would like things cleaned up and for health reasons, we want to get that done as quickly as possible," Renee Bafalis, spokesperson for FEMA, said.
Ron Cutsinger is part of the board of the Sarasota County Commission and also the vice chairman of the commission and represents District 5, which includes North Port. He spearheaded the appeals process to get the waiver from FEMA. His efforts were supported by Congressman Greg Steube, the U.S. House Rep. for Florida's 17th Congressional District.
"All the mobile home parks were hit so hard. It was really gut-wrenching to see how much damage had been done," Cutsinger said. "The county has a long road ahead but boy that sure is a refreshing beginning to get that debris out of there. It just feels like, you know, day by day we are getting things done."
The county commissioner said they would continue the appeal process to have the 20 other remaining parks and any other communities in severe need approved for debris removal.
In the meantime, no longer having to see the giant pile of rubbish outside their home is something the Brianes' have said they are much thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday.
"No words can express how happy we are that it is being done," Kelly said.
"Thank you, U.S. from Canada, and thank you for the people that said yes they were going to clean it up. Thank you," John said.
FEMA said it would continue working closely with the state and local governments to identify communities that need special accommodations for hurricane-related debris cleanup and assistance.