Emergency management teams will begin assessing damage to homes and businesses as state officials prepare to ask the federal government to provide individual assistance for people affected earlier this month by a massive ice storm.
“We’re trying to work as fast and as thoroughly as we possibly can,” Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said Friday. “I know teams will be on the ground next week. As soon as the damage assessment work is done, then we can make a recommendation.”
That recommendation to Gov. Brad Henry is expected to be that he ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve individual assistance, which provides funds to individuals and businesses affected by disasters.
Henry’s request could be made by as early as next week, Ooten said.
The ice storm, which started Dec. 8, left hundreds of thousands without power. On Dec. 10, President Bush declared an emergency disaster for Oklahoma, and later issued a major disaster declaration, which freed federal funds to help local governments with expenses associated with disasters. But that assistance does not also cover individuals.
The state must go through a separate, and somewhat more tedious, process before making a request for individual assistance. It involves documenting what needs exist that would qualify for such assistance under FEMA guidelines. What qualifies, Ooten said, is uninsured damage to such things as homes, businesses, appliances and vehicles.
Such things as spoiled food and downed trees on a person’s property do not qualify, she said.
Ooten said state officials have received about 13,000 reports of damage. A telephone hot line has been shut down, but people can still report damage by going online to www.oem.ok.gov and clicking on the “Oklahoma Ice Storm Damage Assessment Online Form” at the top of the home page.
“We go through the reports and find pockets around the state where we have a concentration of uninsured substantial damages,” she said. “Then we talk to emergency managers in those areas, to take teams into those areas, because the next step is, we have to verify the damages.”
Those teams include local, state and federal emergency management officials.
During those tours, FEMA officials are looking for “the impact on the community, the number of people in the community, and whether it’s the kind of damage that FEMA covers,” said Oklahoma City-based FEMA spokesman John McDermott.
“For individual assistance, the general rule is we want to make people safe, secure and healthy,” McDermott said.
Henry has made three requests to FEMA this year for individual assistance in the wake of disasters. Two of those requests were approved _ one for flooding from June 10 to July 25 that affected areas including Miami, Bartlesville and Nowata, and another for flooding and tornadoes that affected areas including Kingfisher, Watonga and Anadarko from Aug. 18 to Sept. 12.
But a third request was denied following severe ice storms that hit parts of eastern Oklahoma in January. Henry appealed FEMA’s original denial, but FEMA rejected the appeal. Despite pressure from U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., FEMA never released information on why it denied individual assistance in that case.
“I don’t know if we ever got what we thought was an adequate answer,” Henry’s spokesman, Paul Sund, said Friday. “But that’s the past and this is the present.
“With the historic nature of this storm, we’re more hopeful, but that decision is up to the White House. I think we’ll make a pretty strong case and count on President Bush to make the right decision for us.”
Ooten said the denial after the January ice storm has caused state emergency management officials to be even more careful than usual in preparing their request.
“It’s very important that we do it right the first time, that we get the numbers to support that request the first time,” she said.
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