The tornadoes and storms that devastated Oklahoma and killed 34 last year triggered the release of tens of millions of dollars in federal and state aid that will keep flowing for years.
To date, the federal government has approved up to $257 million in disaster assistance of various kinds to help re build damage and help victims of the winds and flooding that struck between May 18 and June 2, 2013, and to mitigate future risks.
The state has contributed an additional $10.5 million, and private insurers are paying about $1.1 billion. Charities also have pumped in aid.
The relief aid stemming from Disaster No. 4117, as it is called by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is arriving through several channels, heading ultimately to state and local agencies, contractors, businesses and individuals.
Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio/The Oklahoma Tornado Project analyzed data, reviewed documents and conducted interviews in a joint investigation.
The storms that wreaked havoc in 21 counties, including the Moore and El Reno tornadoes and Oklahoma City flooding, were less costly in financial terms than some other U.S. disasters, such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. But the damage was widespread, and the assistance is critical.
Federal funds are paying for lost possessions, rebuilding or repairing public buildings, infrastructure and businesses, offsetting the cost of home storm shelters, and much more. The money is helping revive communities and restore normalcy to people’s lives.
Yet at the same time, the payouts, procedures and rules attached to the federal money have proven baffling and frustrating at times.
Although thousands of people have received FEMA aid, nearly three-fourths who applied were rejected, the analysis by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU/OTP found. Some individuals said they had disaster-related needs unmet by their insurance companies but they still did not receive FEMA assistance.
At least three cities and a school district had requests denied because the damage was determined to be unrelated to the disaster. Others were turned away because the project was too small, under $1,000, to be eligible for FEMA assistance or they failed to meet bidding requirements, according to FEMA project worksheets.
Some state money made available was not spent. The state set aside $45 million of its rainy-day fund for disaster relief but the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management returned more than half the amount, saying the need was overestimated. So far, $8.2 million of the remaining $20 million has been spent, and more will likely be used to pay for other rebuilding and repair projects.
The investigation also revealed that some state and local officials are scrambling to spend tens of millions of dollars in federal community grants over the next three years in a way that satisfies strict requirements that at least half of the funds benefit low- to moderate-income areas affected by the disaster.
In Moore, for example, many locations affected do not fall within the federal definition of “low to moderate income,” raising concerns about whether certain funds can be spent as required in the three years.
After a little more than a year, recovery is in full stride in many ways. Some high-profile rebuilding efforts, such as the Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools in Moore, are nearly finished. Many homes in that city have been rebuilt; others still bear the scars of the storm and have yet to be renovated or replaced. Other projects, such as a new El Reno campus for the Canadian Valley Technology Center, are at least two years from completion.
First Calls for Aid
On the morning of May 20, 2013, Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood were touring Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties to see devastation caused by tornadoes that had hit the day before.
Fallin had declared a state of emergency. Ashwood had contacted FEMA to begin the process of seeking a preliminary damage assessment, which can take days or weeks and is necessary for a presidential disaster declaration. The declaration officially releases streams of often large grants and loans from myriad federal agencies that target many public and personal needs, from infrastructure rebuilding to physical and mental health.
A call came in from the state’s emergency operations center, recalls Keli Cain, public information officer for Oklahoma Emergency Management, who was traveling with Ashwood and Fallin that day. More severe weather was rapidly developing. Ashwood recommended to Fallin that they return to Oklahoma City.
“Pretty much as soon as we got back, the weather started getting bad,” Cain said.
Emergency officials watched on television as a massive F5 tornado moved through Moore. “You could see debris flying up in the air,” Cain said. After the tornado moved out, “that was when we knew it was bad, and it was pretty much going to be a disaster declaration.”
That evening, Fallin spoke by phone with President Barack Obama, who said he was issuing a presidential disaster declaration.
“It’s not something that happens for most disasters,” Cain said.
“It definitely saved a lot of time and allowed the assistance to move in much quicker,” she said, referring to state officials’ initial actions and Obama’s quick declaration. “It really did save us days.”
More deadly tornadoes, storms and flooding would follow. Disaster 4117 was eventually expanded to cover a period of 16 days affecting 21 counties in central and eastern Oklahoma, including three counties in the far northeast corner of the state.
Paths of Relief
Ultimately, five major paths of federal disaster relief, provided by three agencies, were opened up to help Oklahoma deal with the wreckage and tragedy left by the storms.
“Public Assistance” helps pay for emergency response and cleanup. “Individuals and Households Assistance” addresses housing and other personal needs. Low-interest disaster loans are available to individuals and businesses. Community block development grants will be spent by Moore and the state on recovery. And “Hazard Mitigation” is to help reduce risks of damage, injury and death in future storms, anywhere in the state.
Oklahoma is no stranger to federal disaster aid. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and violent tornadoes that struck Moore in 1999 and 2003 brought federal relief help.
That assistance is essential, but it plays out differently for each survivor and community, leaving many with more than they expected and others struggling to put their finances and lives back together.
“Long story short, it (recovery) has gone real well. We’ve been blessed,” said Robert Romines, superintendent of Moore Public Schools, which saw two of its elementary schools destroyed and several students killed in the May 20 tornado. The schools are expected to reopen for the fall semester.
Kristy and James Rushing, however, say they needed more help. Their home in Moore was leveled in the same tornado. Their request for assistance from FEMA was denied because their house was insured. But the Rushings, who are foster parents, ended up having to spend insurance money intended for belongings on their new home because contractors said it could only be rebuilt at a higher price.
“You need to have the proper insurance,” Kristy Rushing said. “You have to take care of your family and make sure you’re able to provide in the instance of a tornado, because no one else is going to.”
“Auditing the Storm: Disaster 4117” is a joint investigative series by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio - The Oklahoma Tornado Project on how federal and state disaster aid is being spent in the wake of the violent tornadoes and storms of spring 2013.
The Oklahoma Tornado Project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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