The Oklahoma City area is already home to two of the costliest tornados in the last half a century, and Monday’s devastating twister that hit just south of the city is likely to stress federal emergency dollars already under pressure from the recent federal budget cuts.
Even so, officials in Oklahoma and Washington pledged quick and robust aid to the area that spent Tuesday beginning the massive task of cleaning up even as officials tried to get an accurate count of the dead.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday declared the storm area a disaster area, making federal funding available to people in five counties. That includes grants for housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover.
“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” Obama said, before stressing that “Oklahoma needs to get everything that it needs right away.”
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“So the people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them as long as it takes,” he added.
The money will come through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, which is one of the departments that took a heavy hit in the recent budget sequester. According to a March Office of Management and Budget report, the sequester cut $928 million from FEMA’s remaining fiscal 2013 budget.
In February, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee that the sequester – or mandatory budget cut – “would have significant, negative impacts on our nation’s disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts.”
She added that the cuts also could force FEMA into some restrictions late in the fiscal year “during what is historically the season for tornados, wild fires and hurricanes.”
Even so, on Tuesday, officials were pledging aid would be quick and plentiful.
Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma who is one of the Senate’s chief budget hawks, said in a statement, “I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay.”
His stance prompted some liberal bloggers and websites to charge him with hypocrisy, given his stance in the past criticizing federal disaster aid in other states.
John Hart, a spokesman for the senator, said that it was “crass for critics to play disaster aid politics when first responders are pulling victims from the rubble.”
Coburn, who was traveling Tuesday to Oklahoma to assess the damage, wants to ensure that that federal government responds in the most “compassionate, effective and efficient way possible.” While it is too early to tell what the aid needs will be, or whether FEMA will need additional funds to deliver it, Hart said that Coburn will not change his longstanding position that supplemental disaster aid bills should be offset by spending reductions elsewhere in the federal budget.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, the costliest U.S. tornado since 1950 was the 2011 twister that hit Joplin, Mo., causing $2.8 billion in damage. Also in the top 10: A 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City, causing an inflation-adjusted $1.35 billion in damage; and a 2003 tornado in Oklahoma City, causing an inflation-adjusted $435 million in damage.
Joseph Trainor, an assistant professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, said that even the worst tornadoes don’t cause as much damage as hurricanes, given that their damage footprints are smaller.
“Where the tornado tracks, there is total destruction,” he said. “But houses on either side can be fine.”
While it’s too early to say for sure, Trainor said the impact of the powerful Oklahoma tornado could end up being similar to the one that hit Joplin.