Okla. Lawmakers Riled Over Delay in Emergency Declaration

January 31, 2007

The Bush administration’s delay in issuing a “major disaster declaration” after this month’s devastating ice storm has angered some lawmakers in eastern Oklahoma, where local governments have been financially crippled from cleanup costs.

Gov. Brad Henry requested the declaration more than a week ago, but still hadn’t heard a response by Jan. 30. The state had been granted emergency status, which provided some immediate help.

“This is smoke and mirrors,” said state Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, whose small town has soaked up more than half of its annual budget for storm damage with no assurance that it will be reimbursed.

A major disaster declaration would authorize federal reimbursement to cities, towns and counties for cleanup expenses related to the storm, said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

“In addition to that, the cost to repair roads and bridges and any other infrastructure damage would be eligible,” she said.

Such a declaration also would allow reimbursement to individuals and businesses for uninsured losses, like roof damage, burst pipes and damaged water wells, Ooten said.

Paul Sund, a spokesman for Henry, said the governor shares the frustration of local lawmakers.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency met with Ottawa County commissioners on Monday after observing some of the hardest hit areas. Commissioners told FEMA’s Mike Goldsworthy that they need money for equipment and supplies, but they were told that it may take a while to get that money.

Local governments, counties and electrical cooperatives still have no assurance that they are going to get help from FEMA for what the locals call the worst ice storm in eastern Oklahoma history.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said he expects damage in the 23 affected counties to total at least $39 million. The storm ripped a path from southeastern Oklahoma, starting south of McAlester, then northward and east of Tulsa taking in Muskogee and much of the northeastern counties.

About $4 million is the usual threshold for a major disaster designation, said Ashwood, who is also frustrated with a lack of information.

Earl Armstrong, FEMA public information officer in the Denton, Texas, regional office, said, “The only answer I can give is that this is in the review process.”

Armstrong noted that a governor’s request first goes to a regional office, then to headquarters in Washington and the president looks at it. But Armstrong said he couldn’t say how far Oklahoma’s request has progressed.

Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com.

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