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.
“I'm not saying it doesn't happen. If you go back to Katrina and some catastrophic events, there was a lot more of it that happened, but a lot of that was caused by all of us trying to be as reactive as possible to help out individuals.”
He says any mistakes that are made are generally honest ones. But since Oklahoma has the third most presidential disaster declarations in the nation, most local officials generally understand how the process works.
Moore City Manager Steve Eddy says relief aid was essential after the tornado hit his city.
“It would be impossible for us to survive a storm of this nature without that federal funding. And I virtually say that's true of any community that has a major disaster,” Eddy said.
The city of Moore got over $13 million from FEMA and $52 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s the most federal funding any Oklahoma town or city received as a result of what FEMA calls “Disaster 4117.”
Eddy says the tornadoes in ’99 and ’03 laid the groundwork, so recovery from this most recent storm has gone pretty smoothly.
“We know how to deal with FEMA, what to do, what not to do, probably more importantly, making sure that all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed in terms of all the federal requirements and all that. This is the best FEMA we've worked with on the storms we've had,” he said.
After a disaster like this, there’s money specifically for towns and cities to repair their damages, and there's also funding for storm shelters and measures to make them safer from future storms. There are low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration and, finally, funds to help individuals.
But most people who applied for individual assistance from FEMA didn't get any. 73% were denied statewide, including Sheryl Pennington, who called it a waste of time.
“Maybe it is helpful to some people, but I didn't see where it's helpful to anybody I've known,” she said.
Pennington says it was frustrating, and sometimes confusing, filling out mounds of paperwork to apply for aid. But Ashwood says the good news is that most people were able to complete that process in the first few months after the storm. For cities and towns, it can take much longer.
“These disasters, people think that when they're done, they're done. The federal government came in, they passed out money, they're over with. We're ready for the next disaster.”
In many cases reimbursement takes place after the money is spent, in a process that can take time. The road to recovery is a long one, one that Ashwood expects, in this case, could take an additional five to six years.
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 is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media service that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org. The data team for Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Investigative News Network assisted with the project.
The Oklahoma Tornado Project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.