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Oklahoma Watch: Oklahoma cities must navigate hazard mitigation plans before weather disasters

Oklahoma Watch: The hazard-mitigation money provided by FEMA is calculated by taking 15 percent of the total amount spent on both individual and public assistance aid related to a disaster.
BY CLIFTON ADCOCK, Oklahoma Watch Published: July 21, 2014
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As a massive tornado bore down on Moore on the afternoon of May 20, 2013, residents scrambled to find shelter.

Some retreated to safe rooms at home or in buildings. Many hid in closets, bathrooms or hallways.

Meanwhile, in Stillwater, people were also on alert because a tornado watch had been issued that day. But the city received only a light rain and no wind damage, according to the National Weather Service.

The destruction and deaths caused by the Moore tornado led many people in the city to believe that a residential storm shelter was essential.

But after the May 20 tornado, when the federal government began approving cash aid for projects like shelters to prevent the future loss of life and property, Moore was shut out of the program, according to data analyzed by Oklahoma Watch in a joint project with KGOU Radio.

Stillwater, on the other hand, has so far gotten the largest share of federal “hazard mitigation” funds released under the presidential disaster declaration, records show. Stillwater will spend about $1.9 million, most of it federal money, to help pay for more than 700 safe rooms in residents’ homes. The same program will allow Oklahoma State University to spend $73,000 to install a lightning detection and warning system, needed partly for sporting events.

Moore has not been left out in the cold.

The city is using a $3.8 million donation from the American Red Cross to fund rebates for 1,500 new residential storm shelters. Moore also plans to spend federal community block grant money on private storm shelters in homes. It is using other disaster aid, insurance and donations to rebuild two destroyed schools that will have safe rooms.

But Moore was not able to tap hazard-mitigation grants right away for several reasons — mainly because obtaining the aid requires having an approved hazard-mitigation plan, and the plan that Moore was relying on, Cleveland County’s multi-jurisdictional one, had expired. Norman faced the same problem.

Cleveland County’s hazard mitigation plan expired in late 2011, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved the county’s new multi-jurisdictional hazard-mitigation plan. Such plans identify disaster risks and vulnerabilities and outline strategies to prevent loss of life and reduce damage.

“I suspect we’ll start (revising the hazard mitigation plan) a lot sooner,” said Gayland Kitch, Moore emergency management director. “I didn’t think it would take three years to get approved.”

How mitigation works

Most of the time, a disaster has to occur for FEMA to make hazard-mitigation program funds available.

That was the case after tornadoes and storms struck 21 Oklahoma counties between May 18 and June 2, 2013, which was officially designated as “Disaster 4117” by FEMA.

The hazard-mitigation money provided by FEMA is calculated by taking 15 percent of the total amount spent on both individual and public assistance aid related to the disaster. So far, it appears that at least $8.7 million in federal hazard-mitigation funds will be made available in the state. By early June, more than $3.5 million had been approved for 21 mitigation projects in 14 counties.

According to state records, more than 70 additional projects from counties, school districts and cities are awaiting approval and are seeking more than $25 million in federal funding.

FEMA administers the program, but the state works with local entities on submitting applications, selects the winners and lines them up in order of priority. All plans must meet federal requirements.

Federal funds cover up to 75 percent of the cost, with local entities paying the rest.

Albert Ashwood, director of the state Emergency Management Department, said even when localities’ applications are finalized, federal funds may not be available at the time.

In that case, the projects remain queued up and can quickly be submitted for funds in the event of a disaster. The projects can be funded regardless of whether they are located in the declared disaster area, he said.

“Only communities with approved mitigation plans are eligible for funding,” said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Emergency Management Department. When Disaster 4117 was declared, “those with approved hazard mitigation plans were funded first.”

The Stillwater storm-shelter rebate program was one of those.

In 2011, Stillwater polled residents on their interest in applying for a storm-shelter rebate program, and more than 700 property owners who responded were identified as eligible, said Valerie Silvers, grant coordinator for the city. The estimated total cost was about $1.9 million.

The city submitted its application to the Emergency Management Department.

For two years, the program sat waiting. When the May 2013 tornadoes struck and FEMA hazard-mitigation aid began to be made available, Stillwater’s project was one of the first approved.

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

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