Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:33 am
Tue September 2, 2014

Without FEMA Funds, Numerous Oklahoma Counties Sit On Expired Disaster Plans

With threats ranging from ice storms to tornadoes, Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in the number of presidentially declared disasters over the past 14 years.

That’s why the state says it's important for local officials to maintain hazard mitigation plans, explaining the steps they're taking to reduce or eliminate their risks. But keeping things up-to-date has proven tough. 

Grady County’s emergency management director Dale Thompson sat down last week to look through his county’s preliminary hazard mitigation plan from 2011. At one point, it started to read like a doomsday notice.

“This is the hazard types in the county: dam, levy break, earthquake, fire, flood, ice storm, tornado, expansive soils, that'd be kind of like earthquakes,” Thompson said.

But this hazard mitigation plan he’s reading is expired.

Thompson applied for FEMA grant money three years ago to offset the $96,000 cost of updating it. The county is still waiting for official approval.

“We figured that this process, when we started in 2011, we figured we'd have the funds to do that by now, but unfortunately we didn't get it.”

Grady County and several other counties have been waiting on FEMA to release money from its hazard mitigation grant program – something that only happens after a presidentially declared disaster. Whenever that occurs, 7 percent of funding is earmarked for the type of planning Thompson is trying to do.

But before the bout of severe weather that hit Oklahoma in May of last year, presidentially declared disasters in the state had slowed.

“I'm not complaining, but when we don't have those, then we don't get that federal money coming down,” Thompson said.  “And then it's flustrating (sic.) on us because we know there’s no money up there.”

“We've already set up the system there where there are a lot at one time coming due and about to expire,” said Michelann Ooten with the state’s department of emergency management.

“That's unfortunate, but that's just the nature of the situation here because they're so dependent on the funding coming through, which means they're so dependent on the disasters,” Ooten said.

Because of the workload involved, counties frequently hire outside contractors like “Hazard Mitigation Specialists, LLC” to write and update their plans. David Van Nostrand used to be an emergency manager and now works for the company.

“It's not something that just anybody on the street could do. You have to have some background,” he said.

Van Nostrand says once a jurisdiction receives FEMA money, drafting plans generally takes between two and three years, including the time state and federal officials take to evaluate it. But it’s hard to say for sure when a plan will finally be approved.

“It takes a lot of time. Right now it's taking FEMA five months to get plans back. We still have plans down there that have been there since February,” Van Nostrand said.

Without an up-to-date plan, counties can’t qualify for FEMA money to use toward projects like safe room rebate programs or outdoor warning systems.

That’s what makes this whole process so important, Dale Thompson says. Schools in Grady County want hazard mitigation funding to install storm shelters, but the expired plan prevents that from even being a possibility.

“The hazard mitigation funds and other federal funds, even though you have to jump through a lot of hoops, you have to fill out a lot of paperwork and you have to wait a long time, it's so important for us,” Thompson said.

After waiting for three years, he finally got a phone call last week letting him know the funding is coming his way. He hopes to get the money from FEMA in the near future so he can start the process of updating Grady County's plan. 

Other places aren't as lucky. Close to 40 percent of hazard mitigation plans belonging to Oklahoma counties have expired, and many of them are still waiting for help to arrive.

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