OKLAHOMA CITY — “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 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 rebuild damage and help victims of the winds and flooding that struck between May 18 and June 2, 2013, and to mitigate future risks, according to data, documents and interviews compiled in a joint investigation by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio. 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.
The storms that wreaked havoc in 21 counties, including the Moore and El Reno tornadoes and Oklahoma City flooding, were less costly in financial terms than some other U.S. disasters, such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. But the damage was widespread and the assistance is critical.
Federal funds are paying for lost possessions, rebuilding or repairing public
buildings, infrastructure and businesses, offsetting the cost of home storm shelters, and much more. The money is helping revive communities and restore normalcy to people’s lives.
Yet at the same time, the payouts, procedures and rules attached to the federal money have proven baffling and frustrating at times.
Although thousands of people have received FEMA aid, nearly three-fourths who applied were rejected, the analysis by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU found.
Some individuals said they had disaster-related needs unmet by their insurance companies but they still did not receive FEMA assistance. At least three cities and a school district had requests denied because the damage was determined to be unrelated to the disaster. Others were turned away because the project was too small, under $1,000, to be eligible for FEMA assistance or they failed to meet bidding requirements, according to FEMA project worksheets.
Some state money made available was not spent. The state set aside $45 million of its rainy-day fund for disaster relief but the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management returned more than half the amount, saying the need was overestimated. So far, $8.2 million of the remaining $20 million has been spent, and more will likely be used to pay for other rebuilding and repair projects.
The investigation also revealed that some state and local officials are scrambling to spend tens of millions of dollars in federal community grants over the next three years in a way that satisfies strict requirements that at least half of the funds benefit low- to moderate-income areas affected by the disaster.
In Moore, for example, many locations affected do not fall within the federal definition of “low to moderate income,” raising concerns about whether certain funds can be spent as required in the three years.
After a little more than a year, recovery is in full stride in many ways. Some high-profile rebuilding efforts, such as the Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools in Moore, are nearly finished. Many homes in that city have been rebuilt; others still bear the scars of the storm and have yet to be renovated or replaced.
Other projects, such as a new El Reno campus for the Canadian Valley Technology Center, are at least two years from completion.