BIG PINE KEY, Fla. – More than 1,000 residents living in unincorporated areas of the Florida Keys received substantial damage letters from Monroe County, leaving many homeowners in a lurch.
"If you say something, you might help others, but it might screw you in the end," a Big Pine Key resident, who only referred to himself as Greg, told Local 10 News.
Greg and his wife live in a single-story 700-square-foot mobile home. The pair evacuated four days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in September.
He was pleased to return and find that the home was still intact.
"We didn't lose a gutter. We didn't have a brown spot. We didn't have a cracked window," he said.
But there was one problem, Greg said. About 1 1/2 feet of water came in.
"The inspector came down, checked us off the list, (and said) you're good to go," Greg said. "Then we get this letter."
Greg said he was blindsided by a letter from Monroe County. It said inspectors using software provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined his home sustained substantial damage, which means the cost of repairing it is estimated to be 50 percent or more of the home's fair market value.
In order for a home to comply with floodplain regulations, homeowners are ordered to either elevate or demolish and replace their homes.
"I cannot afford the home that the county thinks I should live in," Big Pine Key resident Cindy Cote said.
Cote, who has lived in Big Pine Key for the last 20 years, is one of hundreds of people who received the same letter.
"They let everyone work on their houses, build their houses, repair, and now the county wants me to tear down my home," Cote said.
Homeowners are allowed to appeal the county's decision.
"We don't always get it right," Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. "It's important to sit down with us and go through your unique situation."
But the process requires an estimate by a general contractor and a uniform appraisal of the home's market value before the storm.
"Sometimes the damage that we think is there might not be there," Gastesi said.
The residents who spoke to Local 10 News said the appeal process is a burden in and of itself.
"I have no intention of leaving," Cote said. "We're resilient here. We're going to rebuild."
Monroe County is hosting a public meeting for homeowners to discuss the permitting process. The meeting will be held Feb. 7 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Lord of the Seas Lutheran Church.