Disasters Put Oklahoma $21M in Debt

February 23, 2009

From ice storms to tornadoes, from floods to wildfires, Oklahoma has amassed $21 million in disaster debt the past two years while enduring a record number of deadly catastrophes that have destroyed roads, bridges and other public facilities, paralyzing communities and straining local governments.

Calamities in the state prompted 14 presidential disaster declarations in 2007 and 2008 – including a record nine in 2007 alone that caused more than $225 million in road, bridge and other infrastructure damage in towns, cities and counties, which are waiting for the state to pay its fair share.

“We started off with an ice storm,” said Caddo County Commissioner Carlos Squires, whose southwestern Oklahoma county was one of the most disaster-prone regions in the U.S. in 2007.

The most devastating occurred in mid-August when the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin dumped 12-18 inches of rain in just four hours, causing floods that washed out roads and bridges, Squires said. The storm left 143 individual infrastructure repair sites in Squire’s district alone.

“It just gutted Caddo County,” he said.

Disaster declarations authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use federal money to pay 75 percent of the recovery costs borne by state and local governments for their disaster recovery costs. The state is obligated to pay 12.5 percent with local governments to pay the rest.

But legislative appropriations to the state’s Emergency Fund, which pays the state’s portion of disaster recovery costs, have not kept up and the state has fallen $21 million behind, creating financial burdens for cities and counties who wait in vain for the state to reimburse them.

“They’ve been slow to respond,” Squires said. “They have reimbursed us some. But we have a lot more yet to be reimbursed.

“When you have disasters, it’s very devastating. If we don’t get that 12.5 percent, it’s going to be very detrimental to counties,” he said.

“It seems like we have more disasters than the ability to give the money back in recent years,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, who has filed legislation to funnel more money to the Emergency Fund and speed up the reimbursement process.

“The cities and the counties are mad. This is money that is owed them. It’s a federal mandate,” Dorman said.

The two-year disaster total does not include two disasters declared so far this year, an ice storm that crippled parts of the state in January and tornadoes on Feb. 10 that killed eight people in the southern Oklahoma community of Lone Grove, said Albert Ashwood, director of the state Office of Emergency Management.

The state had completely paid off its disaster debt and owed nothing at the beginning of 2007, Ashwood said.

“We were even,” he said. “Everyone forgets how many disasters we’ve had. When you think about that, that’s pretty amazing.”

Gov. Brad Henry has proposed appropriating $5 million to the Emergency Fund this year to pay a portion of the debt. But even that may be difficult in a year in which legislative budget writers face a massive revenue shortfall.

“We need more funding than $5 million in the Emergency Fund. But we’re staring into a $900 million budget hole at the same time,” said Paul Sund, communications director for Henry.

“We are very sensitive to the needs of the communities. We want to do everything we can to get them reimbursed appropriately,” Sund said. “In a year like this, everything is challenging.”

But the state has been slow to pay its portion of disaster recovery costs even in years when state lawmakers had more revenue than expected, Dorman said.

“We’ve been up to six years behind in the past,” Dorman said. “It’s an undue burden on the communities and the counties.”

Comanche County officials waited more than four years to be reimbursed by the state following a devastating ice storm in 2001, said Kenny Mike Curry, a county maintenance superintendent responsible for 650 miles of county roads.

“It put us in a bind,” said Curry, who estimated that county roads sustained $3.2 million in damage. “We did all the roads we could. We ran out of money.”

Delays in state reimbursement coupled with rising prices for fuel, equipment and the material needed to make the repairs limited how much work could be done.

“I had to wait on this money so I could do the roads. In the meantime, the cost of doing those roads more than doubled – nearly tripled,” Curry said.

“It’s killed us,” said Comanche County Commissioner Gail Turner. “It’s kind of like when your house burns. You never really get what you lose.”

Years of delays in state reimbursement has affected the county’s ability to recover from subsequent disasters, including floods in 2007, Turner said.

“Your taxpayers are always aggravated because the roads aren’t in the condition they should be,” he said. “We haven’t ever caught up with our pothole situation. It just really affected how much work we could do.”

Dorman’s measure calls for a statewide referendum to amend the state Constitution to require that money from the state’s constitutional Rainy Day Reserve Fund be used to provide state matching funds for federal disaster relief payments.

Dorman said the measure authorizes Rainy Day money to be transferred to OEM within 30 days after the state determines how much it will owe, allowing swift reimbursements to cities and towns affected by disaster.

“For too long, disaster funding has been at the bottom of the priority list at the Legislature when it should be at the top,” Dorman said. “This legislation will ensure that families, communities and counties are not left waiting months or even years for the state to act after a natural disaster.”

Dorman’s bill is pending in the House Rules Committee.

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