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.
“The folks here in Stillwater, and I’m sure from other communities around the state, are very grateful,” said Paula Dennison, development services director for the city. “Otherwise, they may not have been able to put in that additional safety measure for themselves.”
Other projects approved include safe rooms in Oklahoma City, weather radios in Le Flore County and Clinton, sirens in Wister, and development of hazard-mitigation plans in other counties.
When a plan expires
To apply for mitigation funds, a jurisdiction must have a hazard mitigation plan, which can be funded by FEMA and must be renewed every five years. The plan can cover one or more jurisdictions.
In early 2011, Cleveland County began work on renewing its plan, which was set to expire later that year, according to several officials in Cleveland County.
On average, it takes 18 to 24 months to develop a hazard mitigation plan and another six to 12 months to gain approval, Cain said. The agency recommends allowing three years.
Among Oklahoma’s 77 counties, 32, or 42 percent, have expired hazard-mitigation plans or never had a plan, emergency-management data show.
Cleveland County’s updated plan went to the state for review in August 2012, after its earlier plan had expired. But the new plan was returned for revisions in November 2012, Cain said. Approval would not come until April 25 this year.
One reason for the three-year delay was that while Cleveland County and other jurisdictions covered by its plan were revising the document, FEMA introduced a new “Local Mitigation Planning Tool” that required a much greater level of detail for each jurisdiction within a county, Cain said.
“We didn’t anticipate the problems,” said David Grizzle, Norman emergency management director. “It was supposed to be just an update to the plan. Instead … they basically had to rewrite the plan.”
George Mauldin, Cleveland County’s emergency management director, did not return calls.
The delay rippled out to communities.
Before the county’s plan expired in 2011, Norman had submitted an application for a storm-shelter rebate program, Grizzle said. The program would have offered a rebate of up to $2,500 for 450 storm shelters at a projected cost of $1.1 million.
By the time the application was submitted, about 1,300 Norman residents had signed up, Grizzle said.
However, because Norman was included in Cleveland County’s hazard mitigation plan, when the county’s plan expired, Norman’s application became ineligible.
When the tornado struck in Cleveland County in May 2013, the normal requirements of submitting the plan to the Emergency Management Department were waived and the plan was submitted directly to FEMA, Cain and Grizzle said. After numerous revisions, the Cleveland County plan was approved by FEMA in April.
Grizzle said he is in the process of updating Norman’s application and updating the list of applicants. Many have moved, died or bought shelters on their own, so the list has dropped to about 600. The application should be re-submitted to the state by the end of July and within five months be approved, he said.
“I’ve been verbally assured (by the Emergency Management Department) it would be funded,” Grizzle said, although nothing is guaranteed.
“The longer it takes that process to happen, the more likely people are to lose faith (in the program),” Grizzle said. “The process, it really needs to be looked at.”
As for Moore, it had begun work in 2011 to submit a storm-shelter rebate project to the state and FEMA, but after the county’s hazard-mitigation plan expired, it did not submit the application.
Cleveland County also was working on its own storm-shelter rebate program and had sent out cards notifying some applicants that they had been selected and could participate if the funds came through, said Kitch, the Moore emergency director.
“There’s a lot of people who still have those postcards who say, ‘I was selected by the county. Why didn’t I get a shelter?’ Well, the program never got off the ground,” Kitch said.
Another sticking point was that Oklahoma City, part of which is in Cleveland County, had declined to be part of the county’s hazard-mitigation plan, said County Commissioner Rod Cleveland. Oklahoma City had its own FEMA-approved plan.
When the spring 2013 storms occurred, Oklahoma City’s application for a storm-shelter rebate program was waiting in queue with the state, said Frank Barnes, Oklahoma City emergency manager.
The city’s program was ninth in line, but shot to the top because it had a mitigation plan in place, the application was good, and the city was directly affected by the disaster, Barnes said. The roughly $1.3 million in federal and local funds will pay for storm-shelter rebates for an estimated 504 homeowners.
“Five hundred four safe rooms in a city our size is not much, but it’s a good start,” Barnes said.
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.