Auditing the Storm: Disaster 4117

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 in May 2013.

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.

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.

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. 

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