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A joint investigative series by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio/The Oklahoma Tornado Project on how federal and state disaster aid is being spent in the wake of the violent tornadoes and storms in May 2013.

Auditing The Storm: Public Assistance Helps Moore Schools Rebuild

Andrea Booher
Tornado damaged classroom in the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma. An F5 tornado struck the area on May 20th, causing widespread destruction.

When tornadoes damage buildings, there are a number of things to account for when it comes to insurance and federal aid: how many square feet were there? Is the building a total loss? How much will it cost to repair?

But you often don’t think about the contents of a building. For example, what about the number of beakers in a school science classroom?

Robert Romines had been the superintendent of Moore Public Schools for just one week when the May 20th tornado devastated the town, leveling two schools, damaging multiple buildings and taking the lives of seven children. Romines promised the town that the district would rebuild, and it would do so quickly.

“We made a lot of promises early on, and I'll be honest with you, there were a lot of nights I went home shortly after May 20th, 2013 and thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, we have made promises not only to our community, but worldwide media was here,’” he said.

Romines pledged that Briarwood and Plaza TowersElementary Schools would be ready for the 2014-2015 school year, but that meant a lot of work in the meantime. So he called in former superintendent Wayland Bonds, who was in charge during the ’99 storm and Jim Day, Bonds’ assistant superintendent.

The two have worked with FEMA on several occasions. While it can be tedious, Jim Day says it doesn’t have to be complicated.

“They’re there to assist you. If you will cooperate with them and take advantage of the assistance that they offer you, it makes the whole process a whole lot simpler.”

FEMA’s flexible too. Since many of Moore’s schools were built from the same blueprint, Bonds says they were able to look at undamaged buildings to figure out what was destroyed and what needed to be replaced. 

Federal public-assistance funds are paying for the rebuilding of Plaza Towers Elementary School, in which seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado. The school is expected to open next month.
Credit Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch
Federal public-assistance funds are paying for the rebuilding of Plaza Towers Elementary School, in which seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado. The school is expected to open next month.

‘That's good that they'll let you do that because that'd be a real headache to try to think about,” Bonds said.

All of this is incorporated in project worksheets, which estimate the cost of damage. Moore Public Schools had over 60 projects totaling about $50 million. As of last month, FEMA had awarded them over $4 million in federal assistance. Day says that money is used to offset out-of-pocket expenses. 

“Their goal is to assist in any funds that are not covered by the insurance.”

For public assistance, which is the kind of aid Moore Public Schools is receiving, FEMA reimburses uncovered costs up to 75 percent of the total, and the state chips in as well, so the district only has to foot the bill for a small percentage of the repair costs. Superintendent Romines says that’s invaluable.

“The FEMA dollars have been very helpful, very helpful,” he said.

But even though buildings will be ready to go by the time school starts next month, completing all the paperwork with FEMA doesn’t happen so quickly. That’s something Wayland Bonds is used to by now, though. He says he hates to think about it, but Moore has experience with federal aid.

“The first time you go through it, you wonder, ‘How in the world am I going to get through this?’ But after you've been through it with FEMA, they pretty well guide you.”

Bonds and the rest of the team working with FEMA hope to finish all paperwork and get the funding they need by the end of the year. And thanks to FEMA, the state, insurance and donations, Superintendent Robert Romines says it’s likely the district will be able to rebuild without tapping into its general revenue fund at all. 


Auditing The Storm: Disaster 4117 is a series of investigative reports tracking federal disaster aid following the Spring 2013 Oklahoma tornado outbreak. This series represents a collaborative effort between The Oklahoma Tornado Project and Oklahoma Watch. 

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media service that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org. The data team for Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Investigative News Network assisted with the project.

The Oklahoma Tornado Project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membershipdepartment.


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