The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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July 13, 2014

Oklahomans face long road of recovery from storms

“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.

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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.

Oklahoma Watch 'Auditing the Storm' Series

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.

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, 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.

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