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FEMA Hazard Mitigation Funds Don't Always Go Where Expected

Kate Carlton Greer
Oklahoma Tornado Project

When federal aid started pouring into the state after last years’ storms, FEMA designated 4 million dollars for hazard mitigation – a tool used to protect communities from future severe weather through things like storm shelters.

As part of our series with Oklahoma Watch tracking the disaster relief funds, Kate Carlton Greer with the Oklahoma Tornado Project reports the communities you’d think might receive this kind of money sometimes don’t.

Residential storm shelters can be expensive. Prices generally start around 25-hundred dollars and go up from there. So when Hollie Schreiber looked into installing one in her backyard, she just couldn’t justify the cost.

“We had looked into a little bit of what the prices were and just decided it was, at the time, infeasible for us, given that Stillwater hadn't had a tornado and that we'd not actually had to go in our closets,” Schreiber says.

That’s right. Schreiber lives in Stillwater – a place that hasn’t had a serious tornado inside its city limits since an EF-3 struck back in 1990. That made rationalizing the expense tough for her. But after the city sent out a letter with an opportunity to receive a 75% rebate, she jumped on board.

“When the grant program came about, we said, ‘Well shoot. If we're only going to have to pay a couple hundred dollars, now it's all of the sudden worth it to us,’” Schreiber says.

Schreiber applied for funding back in 2011, but the money wasn’t available until last August. She installed her shelter in January and received a $2,000 rebate.

You see, the city of Stillwater was able to offer rebates through FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant program. But those funds are only released after a disaster occurs. Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood says it’s one area of federal funding that seems logical.

“Mitigation is kind of the one thing that makes sense in all of this,” Ashwood says.  “It says that if we spend a little bit of money somewhere else to make sure that the next disaster doesn't do the same damage, then we're actually saving money in the long run.”

And those funds can go anywhere in the state, regardless of whether an area was impacted by a disaster.

Back in 2011, Stillwater officials submitted an application to the state. It sat for years, but after the 2013 tornadoes hit, Ashwood’s office called, letting them know they’d receive $1.4 million through the hazard mitigation program, the most awarded to any city in Oklahoma.

“That was exciting,” says Valerie Silvers, Stillwater’s grant coordinator.  “I was probably dancing on the roof around here.”

Silvers was thrilled to finally get funding, but she says she always knew the money would come. It’s a pretty standard process, according to Ashwood.

“They already had the project sitting on the shelf,” Ashwood says.  “We didn't go out to them and say, ‘Oh! We've got money now. Would you like to do a project?’” 

But all applicants have to have their own hazard mitigation plans in place in order to apply for funding. That’s why Moore, Oklahoma – the most devastated town – couldn’t get any of that money. The plan in Cleveland County – where Moore is located – had expired back in 2011, and was still in the process of being renewed when the storms hit last spring. Moore’s Emergency Manager GaylandKitch says the extended amount of time was unexpected.

“We had started work on it prior to its expiration and thought that it would be a 3, 4, 5 month process, Kitch says.  “And it turned out to be a three-year process.” 

Cleveland County’s updated hazard mitigation plan was finally approved just a few months ago. Kitch isn’t bitter, though. Scientifically, he says tornadoes are the great equalizer.

"We are no more vulnerable, no less vulnerable than anywhere else,” Kitch says.  “History aside, we are no more or no less vulnerable than Stillwater or Oklahoma City.”

Thankfully, while Moore may have missed out on FEMA funds for shelter rebates, The Red Cross has lent a helping hand. It provided enough money for construction of 15-hundred shelters, which Kitch says is extremely helpful. But there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of residents in Moore looking to make their homes safer from future storms.

Kate Carlton Greer was a general assignment reporter for KGOU and Oklahoma Public Media Exchange.
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