For Some Superstorm Sandy Victims, The Government Wants Its Money Back


Liz Treston received thousands of dollars from FEMA and the Small Business Administration after Superstorm Sandy destroyed her basement. Two years later, FEMA demanded more than $4,000 of that money back. (Alex Welsh for NPR)

As the rain and wind swirled outside the window during Superstorm Sandy more than two years ago, Liz Treston’s family helped her into bed.

Treston, 54, was disabled in a diving accident when she was in her 20s. She uses a wheelchair to get around her Long Island, N.Y., home and an electronic lift machine to get into her bed. The night the storm hit, she wanted to be ready for sleep in case the power went out.

Under the covers, she listened as water rushed into her basement, pouring over the appliances and furniture she kept down there.

“I’m laying in bed and I could hear the refrigerator fall over and just make this wretched screeching noise, and it’s dark,” she says. “You could feel the water rising. I opened the drapery and you could actually see whitecaps in the middle of the street.”

The government gave her money to fix what she lost that night. But they accidentally overpaid her. And now they say she owes that excess back to them, more than two years later.

This investigation was the focal point of the NPR portion of my time as the 2014-15 Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow. It aired nationally on Morning Edition, and NPR’s graphics team did a fantastic job visualizing the numbers. You can listen and read the story here.


Main Street Winter Haven Internal Inquiry Finds No Conflict of Interest

WINTER HAVEN | While Main Street Winter Haven has officially denied conflict of interest allegations involving its executive director in an internal investigation report sent in to the state, a claim in the report has stirred new controversy.

The 12-page report not only denies the claims made to the state in January by Jessie Skubna, co-owner of Jessie’s Lounge, but it also says the board reached out to her to expand on her complaint about Main Street Executive Director Anita Strang having a conflict of interest.

Skubna, however, said she never heard from the committee conducting the investigation.

“(Skubna) declined to respond to our request for additional information,” the committee wrote in the report sent July 17 to the Florida Division of Historic Resources, which oversees the Main Street operation.

The report, issued nearly six months after the complaint was filed, said Skubna did not reply to a letter that was sent to her seeking her comments.

But the letter was sent to the wrong address for Jessie’s Lounge. Jessie’s is located on Third Street Southwest, but, according to the report, the letter went sent to Third Street Northwest.

“I was actually really surprised the board never contacted me,” Skubna said. “I don’t get that. They could have emailed to see if I got (the letter). They could have called. Nothing.”

You can read the rest of this article here as it originally appeared on page B1 of The Ledger.

Winter Haven Legal Fees Skyrocket

The old fertilizer plant site had been scheduled to be part of The Landings redevelopment in Winter Haven before plans fell apart. (Pierre DuCharme/ The Ledger)

The old fertilizer plant site had been scheduled to be part of The Landings redevelopment in Winter Haven before plans fell apart. (Pierre DuCharme/ The Ledger)

WINTER HAVEN | The city’s legal bills for the failed Landings development have exceeded original expectations and now eclipse $600,000, according to records obtained by The Ledger.

As of the week of May 15, the city’s total bill for legal fees related to a lawsuit over The Landings was $609,478, city records show.

A small fraction of that amount is being reimbursed by the city’s insurance policy. A larger percentage of future bills will be covered, said Donna Sheehan, a city spokeswoman.

Just over a year ago, when the city was pondering whether to settle the lawsuit, estimates of potential legal fees were $300,000 to $350,000.

The Landings was a mixed-use development proposed for the city-owned Chain of Lakes Complex. After the first phase of the planned project, which included adding three restaurants on Cypress Gardens Boulevard, things fell apart.

The City Commission cancelled its contract with financier Taylor Pursell, citing his failure to close on one-third of an acre and submit a list of covenants, conditions and restrictions by a May 5, 2012, deadline.

In his lawsuit against the city, Pursell alleged the city’s attorney, John Murphy, verbally agreed to extend that deadline when Pursell signed an agreement that allowed a college baseball tournament to be played at the Chain of Lakes Complex before Pursell began the next phase of the development.

Murphy has said he made no such verbal agreement.

The rest of this article can be found here as it appeared on page A1 in The Ledger.