Canals in Florida Keys remain littered with debris after Hurricane Irma

Residents in the Florida Keys are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irma, and the biggest problem right now is that all of the storm debris is still littering canals.

Paula Rybacki showed Local 10 News reporter Liane Morejon the canal behind her home in the Avenues area of Big Pine Key. 

“This was so covered, we couldn’t even get back in there,” she said. 

Rybacki’s home was destroyed in the hurricane. 

“It was a baby blue conch cottage, very much the Key West style, Dade County Pine,” Rybacki said. 

Rybacki now lives in a travel trailer, which is parked where the home once stood. Every day or so, she comes out to pull what she can from the clogged canal, which has been clogged with garbage and debris since September.

“Piece by piece, (I) just throw it up; try to make different piles,” Rybacki said. “There’s shoes, propane tanks, dressers we’ve pulled out, plates, dishes.”

Rybacki said the most ironic thing that she found in the canal was a ship in a bottle that was still intact.

According to Monroe County officials, a unified command of agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard, removed at least $1,650 boats from Florida Keys waterways.

But the county and state are still negotiating how to deal with the rest of the large debris and rotting trash, which sit mainly in the worst-hit middle to lower Keys.

Multiple cars, boats and even full trailers remain submerged. Monroe County officials said it’s taken months to iron out an agreement between Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the county and the Keys’ five municipalities.

“We haven’t even started,” Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi said about removing debris from canals. “We’ve done a few here and there to open up some canals, but we’re working with the state to figure out who’s going to do it. That’s not been established yet.”

Besides deciding who does what and when, Gastesi said there are only so many places to dump the debris — sites that are only starting to open up now that the land debris project is nearing completion.

“The Keys — we don’t have farmland or the boonies to take it to and get it out of the way,” Gastesi said.

The marine cleanup is estimated to cost several million dollars. Officials call the task ahead unprecedented, and the wait is frustrating for those still living among Irma’s destruction.

“(There are) volunteer groups and people that pick up little by little, but we can only do so much,” Rybacki said. “We need equipment here.”

Brian Vest, of Big Pine Key, is one of the volunteers who has been removing debris from canals by kayak.

“There’s nothing for the chairs and gas cans and paint cans and batteries that are all there. We’re going to get them out ourselves,” Vest said.

Every few weeks, Vest and a group of volunteers take to the waterways on their kayaks to remove as much of debris as possible.

“They weren’t doing anything about the trash in the canals, which I can show you,” he said. “So we got about 28 people together, and jumped in the water with kayaks, and cleaned it up, and it just went viral.” 

Vest is hosting a cleanup on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. Volunteers are asked to meet at the Old Wooden Bridge at 1791 Bogie Drive on Big Pine Key. 

Nearly 100 people on kayaks are expected to help with the cleanup efforts. The cleanup will be done in partnership with sponsors Costa Sunglasses, Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial and Reef Relief. 

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FPL says customers won’t have to pay Hurricane Irma restoration surcharge

Florida Power & Light customers won’t have to pay a surcharge for Hurricane Irma restoration efforts as previously announced.

FPL announced Tuesday that the state’s largest utility company plans to apply federal tax savings toward the $1.3 billion cost of Hurricane Irma restoration. FPL estimates that it will save each customer an average of about $250.

“The timing of federal tax reform, coming on the heels of the most expensive hurricane in Florida history, created an unusual and unprecedented opportunity,” Eric Silagy, FPL president and CEO, said in a news release. “We believe the plan we’ve outlined is the fastest way to begin passing tax savings along to our customers and the most appropriate approach to keeping rates low and stable for years to come.”

FPL said it may be able to use future federal tax savings to continue operating under the current base rate agreement for an additional two years. The current agreement covers through 2020.

The company had previously announced its intention to begin recouping its hurricane restoration costs by implementing a surcharge on customers’ bills through 2020.

“Our current rate agreement provides the ability to use federal tax savings to entirely offset Hurricane Irma restoration costs, which delivers an immediate benefit to customers, and also the potential opportunity to avoid a general base rate increase for up to an additional two years,” Silagy said.

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Boat owners see insurance premiums rise after Hurricane Irma

Hundreds of boats across the state of Florida were damage by Hurricane Irma, and now, boat owners are dealing with damage to their insurance policies.

“The hurricane put us out of business for about a week and a half,” Tom Zsak, captain and owner of Top Shot Sport Fishing, said.  

Zsak, whose fishing charter company operates in Fort Lauderdale, said he has been in business since 1974.  But following the high winds, rain and damage from Hurricane Irma last September, it’s his business  that took a direct hit.

“A1A was shut down. All the debris all around, no electric, no water,” he said.

Now that his clients have returned and his charters are becoming more frequent, he said he’s worried about the aftermath of the storm that, for him, comes in the form of increased rates from his boat owners insurance.

“I imagine it will go up, just like everything else,” Zsak said.

While Zsak said he won’t know for sure if his provider will raise his rates until it is time to renew in April, other boat owners said theirs has already risen.

“Some of the insurance companies’ premiums went up, some of them stayed the same. I don’t know any that went down,” John Jarvie, vice president of Oversea Yacht Insurance, said.

Jarvie is a broker who represents dozens of insurance companies. He said that while he has seen some provider’s rates increase, it’s not across the board — at least not in the state of Florida. 

“It mostly depends on the success or failure of these underwriters during the storms and how well they fared,” he said.

John said for those customers who have seen their premiums rise, they still have options to search for another insurance provider.  

He recommends going with an insurance broker who can show boaters all of their options.

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South Florida residents receive fraudulent FEMA disaster assistance applications

Fraudulent applications in South Florida for hurricane assistance after Irma could be slowing down resources for thousands still trying to get back on their feet.

Shallie Olivieri and her family made it through Hurricane Irma’s winds with no damage; but for them, the trouble began after the storm when she received a FEMA letter saying she had applied for disaster assistance at her Plantation home.

“I was initially obviously scared that someone had taken my identity and it was alarming,” said Olivieri.

The letter showed Olivieri’s name, social security number, date of birth and address. But Olivieri has no idea how her personal information got on that form. What’s more, the phone number listed with a Canadian area code was wrong.

Olivieri says someone else filled out an application using her husband’s information.

Other South Florida residents claim to have received the same letter from FEMA, with all their personal information, even though they never applied for assistance.

“I would just presume they were trying to gain something financially from it,” says FEMA spokesperson John Mills. “If proven, this kind of fraud can be felony punishable by prison time.”

Mills says in South Florida alone, FEMA has paid out $400 million in grants for damage from Hurricane Irma.

The problem with fake applications is that an inspector has to check out each one, taking away time and resources, and delaying funds getting to hurricane survivors with real needs. 

“When you see someone trying to take advantage of a situation and delay assistance getting to someone else take money away from someone else who needs help, that’s outrageous to us,” Mills says.

To date, Mills says FEMA has done more than 400,000 damage inspections in South Florida, with 99-percent complete, but they’re not done yet.

“Could the damage inspections have been done faster without some of the fraudulent claims that we’re hearing about?” asks Mills. “Absolutely.”

If you received a letter and wish to report a fraud-related issue to FEMA or the National Center for Disaster Fraud, contact them at the following numbers:

FEMA – 1-800-621-FEMA

NATIONAL CENTER FOR DISASTER FRAUD – 1-866-720-5721

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South Florida used car dealer vows to fight city of Hollywood in court

A South Florida used car dealer accused of parking his fleet in a city garage during Hurricane Irma pleaded not guilty Friday and plans to fight the city of Hollywood in court.

Back in September, just prior Hurricane Irma’s approach to South Florida, Keijo Kiilo parked a fleet of his used cars in Hollywood’s downtown parking garage.

Kiilo owns Autoline on Federal Highway in Hallandale Beach.

Hollywood had lifted all parking fees and the spots in the garage were supposed to be for residents only, especially downtown residents because street parking is limited. But many residents were turned away because the garage was full.

The city said Kiilo violated an ordinance that prohibits the use of public property for private gain.

Hollywood police issued Kiilo the citations and a notice to appear, which is a form of arrest.

The fines for those citations add up to $12,000.

“We don’t feel as though he violated any laws,” Kiilo’s attorney, Ryan Chae, told Local 10 News. “We’re not necessarily denying the fact that he parked vehicles in there, but I think there were extenuating circumstances that warrant his actions and those circumstances certainly do not amount to any sort of violation of the law.”

Does he believe at all that he owes the residents of Hollywood an apology or the people who couldn’t park there?

“At this time, we don’t have a comment for that,” Chae said.

Kiilo refused to comment outside the courtroom.

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Davie woman claims FEMA contractor was sexually inappropriate after Irma

After Hurricane Irma, relief workers poured into South Florida to inspect damaged homes, but one woman said a contractor crossed the line and then mishandled her claim.

Tina Stevens, like many in South Florida, began the process of getting back on her feet after her mobile home in Davie sustained significant water damage from the storm.

“It’s where I work. It’s where I lay my head. It’s where my kids sleep,” Stevens said.

She said a contractor estimated it would cost around $10,000 to make all the repairs. Because of the age of the home, Stevens said it was not considered insurable, so she applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance about a week after she got a visit from an inspector. 

“At first he was very polite,” Stevens said. “He kept remarking on how much damage I had.”

The inspector, who Stevens said was named Thomas, worked for Vanguard Emergency Management, which was contracted by FEMA.

Stevens said before leaving, the inspector crossed a line.

“I have about 22 tattoos and he said, ‘Oh, can I see them all?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re underneath,’ and he was like, ‘Well, can I see them?”

According to Stevens, it’s not unusual for people to ask about her tattoo art, but she said she felt stuck because the man was handling her claim.

“I felt like the implication was there that, ‘I have your case, you have so much damage, let me come in and see your work,’ and so at first I was like, ‘OK, I can send you pictures of the art,’ and he said, ‘No, I want to see them in person,'” Stevens said. “And then it got a little awkward.”

About a week later, Stevens received a letter from FEMA denying her request for assistance. She appealed the decision only to get the same inspector assigned to her case.

“He said, ‘Oh, I have your claim. Do you want me to come by?'” Stevens said. 

Through text messages, Stevens said she offered to send updated photos of the damage. She said the inspector later wrote, “You never showed me that tat lol, but yes I’m still here.”

“I responded to him, ‘You never even tried to get to know me,'” Stevens said.

She said she was still trying to engage Thomas while making it clear she was not interested in anything physical. She said he claimed he made a mistake on her first application by checking the wrong box, resulting in the denial.

When asked if she felt like by blowing the inspector off, if affected her financially. Stevens said, “Yes, absolutely, and it kind of did.”

Stevens said she then received a text message from Thomas that said, “What if I was offering to do something for you without expecting nothing back?”

She said he then offered her a sex act, all while her appeal was still pending.

“I made it very clear that I was really disturbed by his actions,” Stevens said. “He knew nothing about me, and here he is again asking for inappropriate things.”

Stevens said she reported the incident to FEMA and Vanguard.

“I was getting nowhere,” she said. “His supervisor was like, ‘Well, I’ll ask him. Maybe they’ll transfer him to a different site.’ That’s not an adequate solution.”

A month after her initial denial, a new letter from FEMA approved Stevens for nearly $4,000 of assistance.

Local 10 News reached out to Vanguard. A representative told us the contractor has been deactivated, adding in a statement, “Vanguard is actively investigating this complaint. We hold our inspectors and contractors to the highest standards of professionalism and ethics, and take claims of misconduct very seriously.”

Stevens said she wants to keep the same thing from happening to the next woman in her position.

“It is totally inappropriate to take advantage of victims and see that they are weak and in need and continue to prey upon them,” she said.

Local 10 News also reached out to FEMA about the incident. A representative said the agency expects a high level of professionalism and takes reports of inappropriate behavior very seriously. They urge anyone with a complaint, issue or request for additional disaster assistance to call the FEMA helpline at 800-621-3362.

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