tornado

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. 

Auditing The Storm: Hazard Funds Don’t Always Go To Damaged Areas

Jul 21, 2014
Clifton Adcock / 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. 

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.

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.” 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Joplin Works Toward Tornado Preparedness After 2011 Tornado

Jun 23, 2014
Gail Banzet-Ellis

As we pass the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, we’re looking at lessons learned from another devastating storm, three years ago in Joplin, Missouri. 

Joplin’s EF-5 tornado damaged or destroyed more than 500 businesses, but since that time, the city has made remarkable progress getting back on its feet. Recovery has included planning for the unexpected. 

Mercy Health Care System

As residents of Moore, Okla. remembered the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornado that ripped through their community by breaking ground on a new hospital, they could also look toward the state's northeast corner for a symbol of hope.

This May marked the three-year anniversary of the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., just across the Oklahoma border. Both communities lost a hospital in their storms, and Joplin’s new health care facilities are signs of overall recovery and revival.

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