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.
The program reimburses state and local governments, utility cooperatives and some nonprofits for costs of cleanup and emergency aid. Knowing many costs will be covered, responders can take action without worrying about breaking their budgets.
As of early June 2014, about $42 million in such assistance had been approved for last year’s storm disaster, called “Disaster 4117.”
The funds can be used for emergency work, such as debris removal and first-responder efforts, and “permanent work,” such as rebuilding damaged structures, Ashwood said.
The Oklahoma disaster was the first to be covered under a FEMA pilot program created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to allow the federal government to cover up to 85 percent of some costs, instead of the usual 75 percent. When the state’s portion of 12.5 percent is included, some affected areas can recoup up to 97.5 percent of total costs, and even more if they had a debris-removal plan in place.
Some funds may be used to fortify structures being repaired, such as adding a shelter to a building. But the primary goal is to help restore things to the way they were, Ashwood said.
Of the 693 public-assistance projects submitted through June 2 for possible FEMA reimbursement, 538, or more than three-fourths, were awarded funds, according to FEMA data provided by Oklahoma Emergency Management. Thirty-two others were in the process of having funds awarded, and 93 were waiting for FEMA to determine if they were eligible for reimbursement.
Applicants have included cities, counties, public school districts, about 10 electric cooperatives, ambulance companies, colleges and American Indian tribes.
Moore, which was savaged by an EF5 tornado on May 20 last year, has received nearly $15 million from FEMA to address needs that range from removing debris to rebuilding structures.
“It would be impossible for us to survive with a storm of this nature without that federal funding,” Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said.
More than 1,000 homes, 40 businesses and several public structures were destroyed. Eddy said it likely will be another two to three years before the city has mostly recovered and an additional year before the city fully recovers.
“This was a major, major catastrophe,” Eddy said. “Come back and talk to me in five years.”
There are distinctive signs of progress, however.
Moore Public Schools plans to finish rebuilding the new Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools, and repairing Highland East Junior High and the district’s administration building by August or September, said Superintendent Robert Romines. Those efforts are being paid for by insurance, donations and public-assistance money.
Other sources of aid are also at work. The American Red Cross and other charities have provided vital assistance to people. Private insurance is helping pay for a new Moore Medical Center, under construction, to replace the old one destroyed in the tornado. About 575 new homes are being built.
“We saw a great push directly after the tornado of building permits to rebuild the destroyed homes,” said Elizabeth Jones, the city’s community development director. “We’re about halfway there.”
City Manager Eddy and other Moore officials said working with FEMA this time around was easier. The process was more streamlined than after the 1999 and 2003 tornadoes that hit the city.
“We’ve not had any issues,” Eddy said.
Recovery in Oklahoma City
In Oklahoma City, which was hit by tornadoes and flooding, roughly three-fourths of recovery projects have been completed, said Frank Barnes, the city’s emergency manager.
By early June, the city had won approval from FEMA of 18 of 41 submitted projects for a total of about $6 million. About 80 percent was for debris removal. The city is seeking reimbursement for other completed projects.
The city’s infrastructure took its heaviest blows from the May 31 storms and flooding.
“On May 31, everything changed,” Barnes said. “By June 1 we probably had approximately 150 sites in the city with damage from all three events.”
Oklahoma City has 22 projects awaiting approval, more than twice as many as the next closest applicant for public assistance funds, FEMA records show.
The largest project yet to be ruled eligible is repair of a terminal building at the city-owned Will Rogers World Airport. The terminal, which has been temporarily fixed, was damaged on May 31 and permanent repairs are estimated to cost around $982,000, according to FEMA records.
Barnes said most the damage in the city has been identified, but it’s hard to determine when the last of the recovery and rebuilding projects will be completed.
“We know what needs to be done,” Barnes said, “and as a city we move forward and get the work done.”
For some recipients of federal aid, the assistance was an unexpected surprise.
The May 31 tornado destroyed buildings and damaged wind turbines at the Canadian Valley Technology Center’s El Reno campus. The center applied for FEMA aid to pay for damage not covered by private insurance, including money to rebuild facilities to current standards.
The center was required to spend the money first, then seek reimbursement.
It also proceeded because “there was no way I was going to sit around a year or two to find out if we were going to get money from the federal government to help rebuild it,” said Superintendent and CEO Greg Winters.
FEMA sent Canadian Valley Tech $35,000 to repair the wind turbines.
In April, voters approved a $12 million bond issue to pay what insurance wouldn’t cover to replace the center’s facilities, which were outdated when the storm hit, Winters said.
The new structures will include safe rooms that can hold more than 1,200 people. Winters said Canadian Valley Tech is still waiting to see if FEMA will help cover the rebuilding and shelter costs.
“Any money we get from the federal government would sort of be like manna from heaven,” Winters said.
Top Recipients of Public Assistance
Of the $42 million in public assistance awarded by early June by FEMA, Moore and Oklahoma City had received the largest amounts. More applications are pending.
1. City of Moore $13,470,705
2. Oklahoma City $5,985,079
3. Canadian Valley Tech Center $4,347,280
4. Moore Public Schools $4,291,716
5. Oklahoma Electric Coop $2,245,310
6. State of Oklahoma (OEM) $1,155,765
7. Western Farmers Electric Coop $1,019,620
8. Cleveland County $995,426
9. Mustang $614,993
10. Norman $527,207
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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.
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