MOORE, Okla. — Auditing the Storm: Disaster 4117” is a joint investigative series by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio on how federal and state disaster aid is being spent in the wake of the violent tornadoes and storms of spring 2013.
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.
The work has gone quickly.
The school district expects to open the new Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools in August or September — a quick turnaround for such a large amount of devastation, said Superintendent Robert Romines. Highland East Junior High School, also damaged in the storm, is getting a safe room as well.
“Looking back, it’s pretty amazing we’ve come this far … I’m shocked and amazed we would be able to do it,” Romines said
The total value of property loss to the district was around $50 million, Romines said.
So far, Moore Public Schools has submitted 63 projects to FEMA for approval.
Around 70 percent, or 44, have been approved, reflecting about $4.3 million in FEMA public assistance funds, according to FEMA data.
The district has had the most projects approved and awarded by FEMA, although it is fourth in the amount of dollars received.
Many of the large projects, such as the rebuilding of Plaza Towers and Briarwood, repairs to the district’s administration building and repairs to the Highland East Junior High’s gymnasium, have yet to be completed. Thus the final insurance and construction paperwork has yet to be done for FEMA to calculate reimbursement to the district, Romines said.
“We’ve had some uphill climbs, but everybody’s worked together and we’ve gotten through the issues together,” Romines said. “We’re just about there.”
Romines was named the district’s superintendent only a week before the tornado struck. A day after the disaster, school bonds approved in February were scheduled to be sold. The district delayed the sale, since bonds are paid back through property taxes and the destruction of property in Moore would cause values to fall and make bond selling harder, he said.
“Blessed by fire,” Romines said.
To help the district get back on its feet, former Superintendent Wayland Bonds and former Assistant Superintendent Jim Day were brought on board to be the district’s liaisons with FEMA. They had worked at the district when an EF5 tornado tore through Moore in 1999.
Bonds, who has been retired for 10 years, said the 2013 tornado was much more devastating than the 1999 tornado.
“What we were dealing with in ‘99, it was stressful, but we didn’t have to deal with the death (of students),” he said.
Bonds and Day said working with FEMA has been a good experience and that FEMA workers were knowledgeable and thorough.
One major difference from 1999, they said, was the process for applying for hazard mitigation funds to pay for safe rooms in schools.
In the 1999 tornado, when the district put shelters in the damaged Westmoore High School and Northmoor Elementary, it had to apply separately and it took nearly two years to get the funds, Bonds and Day said.
Knowing the funds would be available when the shelters were installed removed a lot of uncertainty, Day said.
“When you’re talking about shelters that are $400,000 or $500,000, you’re talking about a real gamble (of local money),” Day said.
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.
KGOU Radio is airing stories on Disaster 4117, with Kate Carlton Greer reporting as part of The Oklahoma Tornado Project.
The data team with Investigative Reporters and Editors and Investigative News Network team assisted with the project.