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Disaster 4117

Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

Among the more than 900 federal disaster loans offered because of the 2013 storms in Oklahoma, the largest was to cover damage to a hotel east of downtown Oklahoma City.

The 188-room Bricktown Hotel and Convention Center, located about three miles east of the Bricktown entertainment district, was approved for a $748,500 disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration for damage in the May 31 storms.

Auditing The Storm: A Look At Low-Interest Disaster Loans

Aug 5, 2014
Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

After a federally-declared disaster, the U.S. Small Business Administration issues low-interest loans to help homeowners and businesses recover. The agency disbursed over $20 million to Oklahomans following last year’s severe weather outbreak in the central part of the state, so we wanted to look into exactly what it takes to get one of those loans. 

Auditing The Storm: Disaster 4117 is a series of investigative reports tracking federal disaster aid following the Spring 2013 Oklahoma tornado outbreak. This series represents a collaborative effort between The Oklahoma Tornado Project and Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch

The tornadoes, flooding and hail that struck Oklahoma last year left hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, causing many home and business owners to seek help in the form of low-interest federal loans.

The U.S. Small Business Administration approved 929 applications for about $50 million in low-interest disaster loans for people, businesses and nonprofits, according to SBA data acquired for Oklahoma Watch by the nonprofit group, Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Most applicants, 599, took out the loans, but often for much less than what was offered, SBA figures show.

The total amount loaned by the SBA was $21 million, or 42 percent of the approved total amount. All but 52 of the 929 applications were from individuals. About half of the total amount approved was for applicants in Oklahoma City and Moore, which took the brunt of the damage from the May 20 and May 31, 2013, storms.

See a list of approved disaster loans for each city in Oklahoma, of which only 42% were actually used.

The purpose of the disaster-loan program is help owners recover from physical damage and, in the case of businesses, from economic harm.

Auditing The Storm: Approved Disaster Loans By City -- But Not Necessarily Taken

Jul 28, 2014
Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

After a presidentially declared disaster like last year’s tornadoes in Central Oklahoma, the U.S. Small Business Administration often steps in, offering low-interest loans to help homeowners and businesses recover. But the SBA has been criticized in the past for being slow to respond. And following the 2013 storms in the Sooner State, many people still have complaints about the process.

Oklahoma National Guard / Wikipedia Commons

More than half of the federal disaster funds being offered to Oklahoma for recovery from the violent storms of 2013 are in the form of community development grants.

But that cash aid comes with strings attached. And those strings have state and local officials scrambling to figure out how to spend the money effectively and whether they can meet federal deadlines in spending all of the grant funds, totaling $146 million. Whatever is not spent will be left on the table.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved two rounds of community development block grants tied to Disaster 4117, which covers the severe tornadoes and storms that struck in 21 counties between May 18 and June 2 last year. These grants can be used for housing, economic development, infrastructure and prevention against future damage.

The state of Oklahoma was awarded $93.7 million, to be distributed to local governments; Moore received two direct awards totaling $52.2 million.

One of the biggest challenges in spending the money is a requirement that more than half of the grant funds be spent to benefit low- to moderate-income people or areas affected by a disaster. Low to moderate income is defined as those living at or below 80 percent of a metropolitan area’s median income level. In Oklahoma City, that equated to $48,000 for a family of four in 2013.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

In the year since a series of severe storms devastated Central Oklahoma, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded nearly $146 million to the city of Moore and the state to help with recovery. But so far, only a fraction of that has been spent, and spending the money has turned out to be harder than you’d think. 

Oklahoma Watch

As a massive tornado bore down on Moore on the afternoon of May 20, 2013, residents scrambled to find shelter.

Some retreated to safe rooms at home or in buildings. Many hid in closets, bathrooms or hallways.

Meanwhile, in Stillwater, people were also on alert because a tornado watch had been issued that day. But the city received only a light rain and no wind damage, according to the National Weather Service.

The destruction and deaths caused by the Moore tornado led many people in the city to believe that a residential storm shelter was essential.

But after the May 20 tornado, when the federal government began approving cash aid for projects like shelters to prevent the future loss of life and property, Moore was shut out of the program, according to data analyzed by Oklahoma Watch in a joint project with KGOU Radio/The Oklahoma Tornado Project.

Stillwater, on the other hand, has so far gotten the largest share of federal “hazard mitigation” funds released under the presidential disaster declaration, records show. Stillwater will spend about $1.9 million, most of it federal money, to help pay for more than 700 safe rooms in residents’ homes. The same program will allow Oklahoma State University there to spend $73,000 to install a lightning detection and warning system, needed partly for sporting events.

Moore has not been left out in the cold.

Auditing The Storm: Why Moore Missed Out On Mitigation Funds

Jul 21, 2014
Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

When federal aid started pouring into the state after last years’ storms, FEMA designated $4 million for hazard mitigation – a tool used to protect communities from future severe weather through things like storm shelters. But the communities you’d think might receive this kind of money sometimes don’t. 

Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Although millions of dollars in federal aid money began pouring into Oklahoma shortly after the spring 2013 storms, not all who asked for help received it.

The Oklahoma National Guard sought $22,074 for taking Gov. Mary Fallin on a helicopter survey of the damage from the May 20 tornado, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request.

Mid-Del Public Schools had seven of its requests denied for roof repairs and other projects — the most rejected among applicants as of early June — because inspectors found the damage was unrelated to the storms.

The most dramatic rejection trend was for individuals: Of the 13,714 people who  were referred for help by FEMA under its “Individuals and Households Program,” nearly three-fourths were denied.

State and FEMA officials say the denials don’t necessarily mean FEMA was acting carelessly or callously. The agency encourages disaster victims and other groups to apply for funds even when it’s likely their requests will be rejected or scaled back because damage to their properties or belongings is mostly covered by private insurance.

Victims embrace amid the devastation in Moore after the May 20, 2013 tornado.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

After last year’s deadly tornadoes, private insurers paid out over $1 billion in claims. FEMA also chipped in $15 million as part of its individual and household assistance program. But nearly three-quarters of that program’s applicants were denied.

As part of our series tracking the federal aid money, we look at the decision-making process that left much of Central Oklahoma out of luck. 

On the evening of May 20th, 2013, James and Sheryl Pennington stepped outside their home in Moore to find debris everywhere. The tornado had left a devastating trail, and they weren’t exempt from its destruction. 

Lindsay Whelchel / Oklahoma Watch

The smell of freshly cut lumber rides a south breeze to the front of the steel and concrete skeleton rising out of red clay. Construction workers and machines move about.

The new incarnation of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado, is set to open this fall. And in front on this day stand Mikki Davis and family members, there for a rally calling for the state to help pay for safe rooms in schools. Davis holds a picture of her 8-year-old son Kyle, one of the seven children who died.

“I didn’t want him taken (from life),” Davis said. “I expected to come here (on May 20) and find him looking for mama to pick him up.”

Returning to the site brings back memories and emotions. But knowing that the new school will have a safe room gives Davis some consolation.

“If my son’s life was taken so that others in the future could be saved in the future, then that makes me proud to be his mom,” Davis said.

The inclusion of safe rooms in the three schools damaged or destroyed in last year’s tornadoes is part of the FEMA disaster aid enabling the district to  rebuild. The assistance covers three-fourths of the cost of what is not paid for by insurance and donations.

Andrea Booher / FEMA

When tornadoes damage buildings, there are a number of things to account for when it comes to insurance and federal aid: how many square feet were there? Is the building a total loss? How much will it cost to repair?

But you often don’t think about the contents of a building. For example, what about the number of beakers in a school science classroom?

Robert Romines had been the superintendent of Moore Public Schools for just one week when the May 20th tornado devastated the town, leveling two schools, damaging multiple buildings and taking the lives of seven children. Romines promised the town that the district would rebuild, and it would do so quickly.

“We made a lot of promises early on, and I'll be honest with you, there were a lot of nights I went home shortly after May 20th, 2013 and thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, we have made promises not only to our community, but worldwide media was here,’” he said.

Moore Medical Center after May 20, 2013 tornado
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mark Hybers

In 2007, Oklahoma was blitzed by a series of deadly storms, including an ice storm in January that engulfed most of central and eastern Oklahoma and killed 32 people.

Nearly seven years later, three of those federally declared disasters remain on active status. A handful of projects and audits have yet to be completed.

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