Auditing The Storm: Why Moore Missed Out On Mitigation Funds

Stillwater resident Hollie Schreiber received a $2,000 storm shelter rebate through the city's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that FEMA funded following the 2013 Oklahoma tornadoes.
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. 

Residential storm shelters can be expensive. Prices generally start around $2,500 and go up from there. So when Hollie Schreiber looked into installing one in her backyard, she just couldn’t justify the cost.

“We had looked into a little bit of what the prices were and just decided it was, at the time, infeasible for us, given that Stillwater hadn't had a tornado and that we'd not actually had to go in our closets,” she said.

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Government Response
7:35 am
Wed July 23, 2014

Auditing The Storm: HUD Funds Trickle Slowly Into Oklahoma Disaster Areas

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. 

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Government Response
9:30 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Thousands of Disaster-Aid Requests End in Rejection

Susan Montesano and her two children, Aspen, 4 and Braden, 2 escaped from her and her fiancé’s rented house in Moore before it was leveled by the May 20 tornado. They received a $15,000 disaster-aid check within days.
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.

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Government Response
7:30 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Assistance Is Hit And Miss For Individuals After 2013 Tornadoes

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. 

“The front door was blown out. We had the roof and windows and some inside damage. The roof leaked the next day. I think it started raining, and we had water pouring into the kitchen.” 

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Government Response
9:30 am
Tue July 15, 2014

Disaster 4117: Moore Public Schools

A new Briarwood Elementary School in Moore is near completion, paid for by insurance and federal public assistance money.
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.

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Government Response
7:00 am
Tue July 15, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Disaster 4117 - Public Assistance Helps Moore Schools Rebuild

Tornado damaged classroom in the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma. An F5 tornado struck the area on May 20th, causing widespread destruction.
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.

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Public and Private Aid
10:00 am
Mon July 14, 2014

Auditing the Storm: Disaster 4117 - The Long Road

The Moore Medical Center immediately after the May 2013 tornados.
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.

The long process of dealing with recovery from those storms points to the likelihood that Oklahoma will be doing the same following the severe tornadoes and storms of spring 2013.

  “These disasters, people think, ‘When they’re done, they’re done,’” said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, which oversees the state’s response and distribute disaster-aid funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But a key component of disaster aid, called public assistance, can go on for years. “Unfortunately, the public assistance portion takes a long time,” Ashwood said.

 

“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.

Of the five major channels of federal disaster aid, public assistance often involves the largest amounts of cash aid and is vital at helping propel the first emergency responses.

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Government Response
7:30 am
Mon July 14, 2014

Following Oklahoma's 2013 Tornadoes, Where Does Federal Aid Really Go?

Debris filled the streets in Moore, Okla. on May 20, 2013.
State Farm Flickr Creative Commons

After a string of deadly tornados hit Oklahoma in the spring of last year, President Obama signed a federal disaster declaration that paved the way for up to $257 million in aid. 

One year later, about one half of that funding has been spent.  The Oklahoma Tornado Project teamed up with Oklahoma Watch to track where all the money went. 

Following huge disasters, there’s always a potential for things to go wrong. In New Orleans, former mayor Ray Nagin was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking bribes from contractors rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And in New Jersey, there’s been criticism that some Sandy aid money has gone to less needy areas.

So we wanted to look into Oklahoma’s post-storm recovery. State Department of Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood – who has worked closely with FEMA – says outright fraud is less common than it used to be. 

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Government Response
7:15 am
Sun July 13, 2014

Special Report: Auditing The Disaster Aid For 2013 Tornadoes And Storms

Federal public-assistance funds are paying for the rebuilding of Plaza Towers Elementary School, in which seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado. The school is expected to open next month.
Clifton Adcock Oklahoma Watch

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.

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Preparedness
7:30 am
Mon July 7, 2014

Take Shelter Oklahoma Launches New Initiative Petition

Take Shelter Oklahoma worked to collect signatures last fall for its original petition.
Credit Kurt Gwartney / KGOU

A group that wants to install a tornado shelter in every public school in Oklahoma spent the holiday weekend gathering signatures to get its initiative petition on an upcoming ballot. 

This isn’t Take Shelter Oklahoma’s first attempt to collect 155,000 signatures, but the group is giving it another shot. 

Supporters of Take Shelter Oklahoma stood on the porch of David Slane’s Oklahoma City law office last week to celebrate the launch of their second signature gathering campaign.

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Recovery
7:30 am
Mon June 30, 2014

Group Hires Ex-Convicts To Rebuild Oklahoma After 2013 Tornadoes

Reuben Ramirez cuts wood for trusses at the Habitat for Humanity offices in Oklahoma City.
Kate Carlton Greer Oklahoma Tornado Project

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Each year, the state releases roughly 8,000 people from prison, and many of them are looking for work. One organization now hires ex-offenders to help rebuild and restore tornado-struck towns. 

When Reuben Ramirez was released from prison three months ago, it was hard for him to adjust. Ramirez spent a total of seven years behind bars, so getting used to the outside world wasn’t always easy.

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