Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:30 am
Mon April 28, 2014

Three Years Later, Norman Residents Still Wait For Storm Shelter Rebates

Tornado season has returned once again, and after the experience of last year, many Oklahomans are re-assessing their safety plans and prepping their designated refuge areas. 

Karen Stark stands in her newly installed safe room in her garage in Norman.
Credit Kate Carlton

For some people, that just means cleaning out their safe room. But for others, this weekend’s tornado scare was a reminder that they still haven’t gotten funding they were promised to build safe rooms.

Listen to the radio story.

Karen Stark has lived in Norman for decades. She’s seen her fair share of storms. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that she finally decided it was time to install a safe room in her house.

“I wanted to feel safe. I was tired of sitting in my hall with my blankets, with my dog, with my cat, talking to my neighbor next door scared to death,” Stark said.

Back in 2011, she applied and was chosen as one of about 700 Norman residents slated to receive rebates of 75% of the cost of a shelter, up to a maximum of $2,000.

The city expected to fund the rebates using money from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. But three years later, Stark and most of the other applicants are still waiting for that aid to arrive.

Norman’s Emergency Management Coordinator David Grizzle says securing the funds to hand out has proven to be difficult.

“In 2011, we completed the process and submitted the grant, and then there was lack of funding at that time and our grant was basically put on a shelf,” Grizzle said.

There’s a lack of funding because they needed to wait for FEMA to make the aid available, which it only does under certain circumstances.

You see, Oklahoma is so prone to disasters that over time, state officials have just come to assume they’ll occur.

“But along the way, there have been a few years in there where we've had kind of a dry spell when it comes to disasters,” Michelann Ooten with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said.

“And that's a good thing unless you're depending on the hazard mitigation grant funds that come from a presidentially declared disaster.”

Ooten says she knows it’s hard for people to front the cost of a safe room, which averages around $2,500 to $4,000, depending on where it’s installed.

And that’s exactly why rebate programs like the one in Norman exist. But it’s not as easy as just writing a check. After all, the funds are coming from the federal government.

“It's a long process as you can imagine. When you're dealing with government grant money, we have to jump through a number of hoops. We have to make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed,” Ooten said.

The state Office of Emergency Management has requested that FEMA expedite Norman’s grant money.

But even if the plan were approved tomorrow, it could still take months for people to get their checks. And that means Norman residents waiting for rebates will have to endure yet another storm season without safe rooms.

That’s something Karen Stark wasn’t willing to do. 

“I finally had to throw in the towel and say, ‘I gotta do what's best for me.’” Stark said.

So she took out a loan and had a safe room installed in her garage a couple of weeks ago. 

“I’m so excited. I'm so relieved. So now when I see the weather, I go, ‘Eh. I'm good,’” Stark said.

“I mean, granted, I still don't ever want it to blow away my house. That would be awful. But it's nice to know that if it does, I'm going to be ok. And that's worth it. Priceless.” 

Stark says her decision was made that much easier because Norman recently closed all of its public shelters, leaving her with almost nowhere to go when a tornado came.

Norman’s Emergency Manager David Grizzle says he respects Stark’s choice to go ahead and install a shelter. Loans aren’t fun, he says, but at least Stark now has peace of mind.

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