Crews remove limbs from power lines in McAlester after an ice storm in January 2007.

Brandi Simons / Getty Images

In Case of Emergency, Break the Bank: State Owes $31 Million

  • Joe Wertz

The state’s emergency fund is running on empty.

In mid-August, the balance was less than $1,000, and more than $36 million in disaster reimbursements are owed to various city, county, municipal and tribal agencies. Gov. Mary Fallin has called on legislators to replenish the fund, which hasn’t received an appropriation since 2008.

Brandi Simons / Getty Images

Crews remove limbs from power lines in McAlester after an ice storm in January 2007.

The state was caught up on its disaster reimbursements as of Jan. 1, 2007, but hasn’t made any since, State Emergency Management Department Director Albert Ashwood told The Oklahoman on Aug. 15.

What does the State of Oklahoma owe — and to whom? Hit the jump for StateImpact Oklahoma’s analysis and a searchable data table.

The State Emergency Fund was created in 1963 to help communities respond to disasters. Once a presidential disaster declaration has been formally issued, the federal government pays 75 percent of the reimbursement costs to cities, counties, electric cooperatives, water districts and other entities that sustained infrastructure damage.

Oklahoma has had 23 presidential disaster declarations since Jan. 1, 2007, which Ashwood has called “unprecedented.”

Brandi Simons / Getty Images

Charles Odom sleeps on a cot at an American Red Cross emergency shelter in Pryor, which lost power for more than a week after the ice storm in January 2007.

The remaining 25 percent of the reimbursement costs are split between the state and individual entity. The state’s 12.5 percent match is not a statutory obligation, but it’s an established precedent the Emergency Management Department will always honor, said Michelann Ooten, the department’s deputy director.

“In some states the 25 percent is on the backs of the applicant,” Ooten said.

Counties, cities and towns are the first reimbursement priority, Ashwood told Gov. Fallin, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, in his third quarterly report (view here) on the balance and outstanding obligations of the emergency fund.

Electric cooperatives — which account for half the amount owed from 2007-2010 disasters, records show — will be the last to be reimbursed. The state’s reimbursement priorities were dictated by both budget and public safety concerns, Ooten said.

At the county and municipal level, disaster reimbursement costs are often diverted from public safety funds, Oooten said, adding that budget shortfalls throughout the state have hit rural areas the hardest.

Brandi Simons / Getty Images

Crews remove trees from power lines downed in a 2007 ice storm. About half the money the state owes is to electric cooperatives, which are the last to be reimbursed for disaster damage.

Topping the list of entities owed is Comanche County, which records show is owed more than $2.5 million, most of which is associated with a blizzard that swept the state in December 2010.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency committed about $68 million to Oklahoma for the December 2010 blizzard, and an ice storm that followed in January of that year.

According to the state records, Comanche County is still owed almost $110,000 from a severe winter storm in 2009.

Ron Kirby, the Comanche County central district commissioner, assailed the state’s disaster debts in an article published in the Aug. 28 edition of The Lawton Constitution. Kirby told the paper that the legislature has a history of dragging its feet when it comes to repaying country governments.

“You saw the budget,” Kirby told the paper. “You don’t think we could use an extra $2 million?”

While reimbursements for 2011 are still estimations, finalized data from 2007-2010 disasters show the financial impact recent natural disasters have had on Oklahoma.

2007-2010 disaster records show:

  • The state owes about $31 million to 410 agencies.
  • 157 cities are owed money, and there are 82 outstanding county claims.
  • Almost all the all the disaster costs — $27 million — stemmed from severe winter storms.
  • About $500,000 is owed to American Indian tribes.

Debris removal is the single biggest cost when it comes to disasters in Oklahoma, Ooten said, which explains why severe winter storms account for most of the state’s disaster reimbursements.

“It’s dealing with the debris,” she said, “both collecting it and figuring out what to do with it. Are you going to take it to the landfill, can you burn it? These are the types of questions that come into play.”

Money Owed Cities for 2007-2010:

[spreadsheet key=”0AjlIKRG8DtTqdHNPRXdfR1Q3d1VXWVU2SVNhamJ0eEE” source=”Office of Emergency Management” filter=1 paginate=1 page=0 ]

Money Owed Counties for 2007-2010:

[spreadsheet key=”0AjlIKRG8DtTqdHNPRXdfR1Q3d1VXWVU2SVNhamJ0eEE” source=”Office of Emergency Management” filter=1 paginate=1 page=1 ]

NPR’s Database Reporting Coordinator Matt Stiles contributed to this article.