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How Did Casey DeSantis Spend $63M Raised for Hurricane Ian Relief?

Volunteer Florida reported that $32.5 million of the money was awarded in grants to groups such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Another $4 million was set aside for a small-business recovery program.

More than 10 months after Hurricane Ian tore through Florida, millions of dollars raised through first lady Casey DeSantis’ Hurricane Ian relief campaign remain to be spent.

Over $63 million in donations rolled into the Florida Disaster Fund as images of the storm’s devastation filled the airwaves, according to Volunteer Florida, the nonprofit organization that oversees the fund.

Volunteer Florida reports it has awarded about $54 million to charity and response agencies. About $9 million is left to be allocated as the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches, the organization said.

In Central Florida, money from the fund is being used to build affordable housing for seniors, clean up flooded houses, cut down storm-damaged trees and address other damage not covered by insurance or FEMA, disaster relief officials said.

Those dollars extended a lifeline to many in Central Florida, but more assistance could be put to good use with families still struggling to complete repairs, said Alan Harris, Seminole County’s emergency management director and vice president of the disaster relief nonprofit organization Seminole Heart.

“Most people have moved on from the storm. … If you are one of the families who has black mold or has a damaged roof, it’s something you think about every day,” he said.

In all, 1,082 households are still living in recreational vehicles and other temporary housing, including 164 in Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Where It Went

On its website, Volunteer Florida says the fund has awarded $32.5 million in grants to groups such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The organization lists success stories in its operations report, highlighting how it provided badly needed relief in Central Florida and Southwest Florida, which suffered the worst damage in the state. Donations were used to help low-and-middle-income homeowners elevate their storm-prone houses, deliver meals to seniors, assist educators with insurance deductibles, open emergency food banks and deep-clean damaged homes.

But details are limited on other initiatives. The governor’s office announced a $25 million program in December through the disaster fund to provide “lodging for volunteers, protective equipment and other necessary supplies and commodities.”

Another $4 million was set aside for a Small Business Recovery Program and $3 million for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s disaster-relief program in March.

Volunteer Florida hasn’t provided a list of which businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals received funding through those programs. The governor’s office referred questions to Volunteer Florida, which oversees the fund.

The organization should be more forthcoming, particularly with programs that send money to for-profit businesses, said Laurie Styron, executive director of CharityWatch.

“Those funds can end up benefiting private individuals,” she said. “The public needs to know who are those private individuals.”

It’s not unusual that millions of dollars would still be unallocated almost a year after a disaster, and it can be a good thing if charities take time to ensure they responsibly distribute funds, Styron said.

But charities should also be careful not to “cling to their purse strings” if emergency needs haven’t been met, she said.

“People who donate in response to a natural disaster want to ease the suffering of the people affected,” Styron said. “That’s why they donate. So if you still have people who are unhoused, buried in debt as a result of disaster losses, or otherwise not back on their feet, it is safe to say that the intentions of donors are not being honored.”

The disaster relief fund was established in 2004 to help with losses not covered by insurance or government funding.

Donations, both small and large, quickly poured into it after it was activated for Hurricane Ian. Donors spanned from a California second-grader who chipped in the proceeds from his lemonade stand to $1 million contributions from businesses like Amazon, Florida Blue and Publix. The rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd sent $100,000.

Some of the governor’s top individual and corporate political donors also made sizable contributions to the disaster relief fund, including the Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow and hedge fund manager Ken Griffin.

Casey DeSantis vowed to quickly get aid to those in need as she promoted the fund.

“We can take those resources and micro-target them and get them directly to the ground as quickly and as efficiently as possible. … We’re going to cut through any red tape and bureaucracy because we know people need those funds and they need help,” she said during a press briefing on Sept. 29.

Putting Dollars to Use

Seminole Heart, a nonprofit disaster relief organization, got $100,000 from the disaster fund in the spring. About $25,000 has been spent so far to address 565 “unmet needs,” which include projects like fixing damaged wheelchair ramps, cleaning up mold and cutting down damaged trees for home-bound seniors, said Harris, Seminole’s emergency chief.

To make the money go further, Seminole Heart is relying on volunteer labor to complete projects. More funding would allow contractors to be hired and speed up the repair process, Harris said.

“If we had just wanted to spend the money really quickly, we would have done three or five roofs and been done,” he said.

In Osceola County, the Council on Aging got $600,000 to help with the construction of the 60-unit Buen Vecino affordable housing development near Kissimmee. Work is expected to start by the end of the year with the units being available by 2025.

When completed, it will address a critical affordable housing shortage for seniors in Osceola County that was worsened by Hurricane Ian, said Wendy Ford, president and CEO of the Osceola Council on Aging.

“We have seniors in Osceola County living in their cars,” she said. “It’s horrible. It is heartbreaking to see what happens. They come from a generation where they don’t ask for things.”

Osceola REDI, a disaster relief nonprofit, got $100,000 from the fund and another $50,000 from the United Way and corporate partners, said Sue Ring, the group’s secretary.

Those dollars are providing furniture, new bedding and other move-in needs to people displaced by the storm, she said.

“Our focus has been on helping people get back into homes or housing they secured,” Ring said. “I would absolutely say it is making a difference. Osceola County doesn’t necessarily have those resources to step in like that.”

What’s Next for the Fund?

The governor’s office and Volunteer Florida have not announced plans for the $9 million that remains to be allocated.

“Volunteer Florida remains in constant contact with organizations and people who are actively involved in the recovery process and continue to assess the unmet needs in Southwest Florida,” Brittany Dover, a Volunteer Florida spokeswoman, said in an email.

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin B. Anderson said his community is mostly out of the emergency response phase and is now working on long-term recovery.

Charitable donations are making a big difference, but the recovery isn’t finished, he said.

“There are a lot of people straggling with insurance companies to get reimbursement for damage and keeping coverage on their home,” Anderson said. “The state has made an effort, but it’s going to take a lot more work.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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