Charlotte County taking FEMA to federal court over $5.4M in Hurricane Charley relief funds

Charlotte County recently lost a legal battle with FEMA over the money being used to repair 15-year-old damages from Hurricane Charley, which will put millions of tax dollars at stake. But the county has not given up its fight.

One lawyer told us the county has a good case to keep the money. Hurricane Charley’s 145-mph winds caused $15 billion in damage.

FEMA reimbursed Charlotte County for $62 million in repair costs and cleanup after Charley wreaked havoc on the area. But, almost two decades later, FEMA said it paid too much.

Charlotte County is at the peak of its fight and plans to take FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to federal court over $5.4 million FEMA wants the county to pay back.

“It was like a war zone here,” said bartender Linda Ciaccio, who works at Dean’s South of the Border in Punta Gorda. “There were shingles everywhere, bricks. When you went past the trailer park, there was debris everywhere.”

After FEMA reimbursed the county with millions to mend the area from Charley’s destruction, the federal agency wants Charlotte County to pay back milions for what it calls overpaid funds. The county has appealed twice, and FEMA rejected the appeals both times.

“FEMA is the one who made the original decision,” said attorney Pamella Seay, an FGCU professor. “Of course, they are going to uphold their decision.”

Seay believes Charlotte County has a strong case against FEMA.

“Realistically, I think a court is going to find in their favor,” said Seay. “But the fact is, it is costing them time, effort and money.”

We spoke with Charlotte County about the issue in August, and the budget director pointed us to legislation that only allows FEMA to “claw back: money within three years of a storm. But that rule went into effect more than a decade after Charley. So it’s unclear if that will apply now.

The county confirms the current lawsuit with FEMA is over the $5.4 million the agency wants the county to pay back. Both the county and FEMA said they can’t comment further during pending litigation.

“It used to be that FEMA could go anytime,” Seay said. “It didn’t matter. There were no limitations. Now, there is.”

But, 15 years later, many say this is a small hiccup in the county’s huge recovery.

“It’s made us better now as a whole, but it was devastating at the time,” Ciaccio said.

Reporter:Erika Jackson
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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