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Cities in Oklahoma scramble to spend community storm grants

More than half of the federal disaster funds being offered to Oklahoma for recovery from the violent storms of 2013 are in the form of community development grants.
By Clifton Adcock, Oklahoma Watch Published: July 23, 2014
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More than half of the federal disaster funds being offered to Oklahoma for recovery from the violent storms of 2013 are in the form of community development grants.

But that cash aid comes with strings attached. And those strings have state and local officials scrambling to figure out how to spend the money effectively and whether they can meet federal deadlines in spending all of the grant funds, totaling $146 million. Whatever is not spent will be left on the table.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved two rounds of community development block grants tied to Disaster 4117, which covers the severe tornadoes and storms that struck in 21 counties between May 18 and June 2 last year. These grants can be used for housing, economic development, infrastructure and prevention against future damage.

The state of Oklahoma was awarded $93.7 million, to be distributed to local governments; Moore received two direct awards totaling $52.2 million.

One of the biggest challenges in spending the money is a requirement that more than half of the grant funds be spent to benefit low- to moderate-income people or areas affected by a disaster. Low to moderate income is defined as those living at or below 80 percent of a metropolitan area’s median income level. In Oklahoma City, that equated to $48,000 for a family of four in 2013.

In Moore, the only neighborhood hit by the May 20, 2013, tornado that qualifies as low- to moderate-income is a seven-square-block area west of Interstate 35. That has prompted planners in Moore to look for ways to spend the grant money in other areas and still meet the requirements.

The state faces the same stipulation in distributing the money to communities; it must ensure communities spend the grants to benefit lower-income households.

In addition, the state and Moore have just over three years, until Sept. 30, 2017, to allocate how the money will be spent, and two years after each of those decisions to actually spend the money.

All of the Disaster 4117 block grants must be spent by Sept. 30, 2019.

Officials are working to develop enough projects that qualify for the disaster funds and address the disaster’s unmet needs before the 2017 deadline.

“We’re walking a timeline tightrope, but we want to make sure everything we’re doing is effective and meets the needs out there,” said Vaughn Clark, director of community development at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Less than expected

In late December, the state of Oklahoma and Moore were awarded the first round of HUD disaster-relief grants for the storms.

Moore received $26.3 million, and the state $10.6 million. In addition to other conditions, the state was required to spend 32 percent of the grant in Cleveland County, where most of the storm damage occurred.

The state’s amount was less than officials expected.

State planners wrote in an action plan, which outlines for HUD how the funds will be spent, that the disaster’s “total amount of unmet need far exceeds” the $10.6 million and the state hoped for a second allocation of HUD funds.

“I think the amount might have been low because they were trying to estimate what was unmet following the insurance payments, the FEMA payments and other payments,” Clark said in an interview.

Oklahoma City, which suffered some damage from the May 20 tornado but substantially more in the storms on May 31, was not directly awarded HUD funds. That left some city officials feeling the destruction they had to address was being overshadowed by Moore’s.

“We will eventually get some money,” said Frank Barnes, emergency manager for Oklahoma City. “I think at the federal level, when they give it to Moore, they don’t realize it is only going to the jurisdictional boundaries of Moore.”

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Editor’s note

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. Remaining installments will roll out the week of July 28.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

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