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First Coast News helps homeowner fix up her home years later

Janet Jackson’s home was repaired through the Rebuild Florida Irma program, but she says she was left with a list of problems that the contractor didn’t fix.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Janet Jackson, waiting anxiously at her front door, greets two FloridaCommerce employees. It is a visit that, according to her, was long overdue.

“Today was a little emotional for me because I’ve been going through this for a while,” Jackson said. “The idea that they finally came out and said they were going to do something about it gave me a little relief.”

We first met Jackson in March when he invited us into his home in north Jacksonville to show us the work he said the contractor hadn’t been able to finish. She joined the Rebuild Florida program in 2019 after Hurricane Irma damaged her home. It is a program designed to help Floridians repair and replace their hurricane-damaged homes at no cost to the homeowner.

“I think it’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t have taken this long to come fix a house,” Jackson said. “We still have garbage bags on our windows where we can’t even put the blinds because they didn’t leave room to put them up. When they did the attic, they blew up the attic insulation. It is located right in front. As soon as you open the attic, it falls out.”

He never thought he would still be dealing with this after so many years.

“If I had to do it again, I would wait and do it myself step by step,” Jackson said.

During her wait, the cost of her taxpayer-funded project to repair her home quadrupled from $30,000 to $123,000, according to records obtained by First Coast News. The state paid him to spend months in a hotel.

“Six months, 14 days,” Jackson recalled.

He said the total bill was more than $20,000.

“That’s money that could be used on another house for someone in need,” Jackson said.

A research carried out in collaboration with 10 Tampa Bay and First Coast News The investigation revealed huge hotel bills for several families. We spoke to other owners whose hotel bills exceeded $86,000 and some spent more than a year living in a hotel.

We shared our findings with Sean Moulton of the nonpartisan watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight.

“The length of stays we’ve seen at some of these hotels raises serious questions about whether or not the homes were given the urgency they should have been given,” Moulton said. “And again, this is the oversight of the state agency that reviews this program and implements this program to ensure that contractors are putting in their time and effort. It raises questions about whether the contractors overextended themselves or not.”

We went to Tallahassee to get answers and sat down with Florida Secretary of Commerce Alex Kelly.

“There are some homes where costs have been significantly higher than originally projected. Fortunately, they are only a few. The overall average cost of homes in the program is actually one of the least expensive programs we have run so far,” Kelly said.

Kelly says the state made the decision to provide temporary housing at no cost to homeowners.

“We can definitely see that our IEM contractor and/or one of our subcontractors that is actually doing the construction work, we can definitely see cases where those contractors could have gotten to the end of this process more quickly,” Kelly said.

The state awarded IEM a six-year, $252 million contract in 2018 to manage the Rebuild Florida Irma program. IEM says it had no direct supervision to manage the contractors hired by Florida Commerce to perform work through 2021.

Justin Domer, director of the Office of Long-Term Resiliency, says in some cases the prime contractor dropped the ball. He says the state has levied about $3.5 million in fines on IEM.

“Clearly, our main contractor, IEM, and clearly some of our contractors, were clearly okay with abdicating their responsibility,” Kelly said.

IEM says it has completed more than 95% of the projects and most of the remaining homes will be completed by the end of July. The company declined multiple interview requests, but sent us answers to our questions along with a video message from the company’s CEO.

READ MORE: Company hired to execute the Rebuild Florida Irma program responds to accusations of irregularities

The company stated: “We recognize the concerns raised by a small number of homeowners generally regarding incomplete and substandard work on their properties. These homeowner complaints are being addressed. The homeowners you have heard from represent less than 1% of the population served by the Florida Irma Reconstruction houses.”

After we gave FloridaCommerce the names of about two dozen homeowners still waiting to rebuild, they told us they sent representatives to 27 homes, including Janet Jackson’s, to see their concerns in person.

“He said we’ll definitely come back to do a lot of the things that haven’t been done,” Jackson said.

Jackson said she is very grateful for the investigation into the program that she says has caused her so much conflict. “I think if your reports hadn’t been done, I’d still be just writing notes, just writing emails. Thank you all for stepping in to help me and everyone else you’ve helped.”