Citing mounting damage estimates from this month’s winter weather, Gov. Brad Henry today announced that he will ask state legislators to set aside an additional $15 million to help pay costs associated with the storms. The governor wants the money deposited in the State Emergency Fund, the account used to reimburse communities and public entities for costs incurred during natural and manmade disasters.
Gov. Henry also announced today that he had officially forwarded his request for a major disaster declaration to President George W. Bush. The request covers 23 hard hit counties in eastern Oklahoma: Adair, Atoka, Bryan, Cherokee, Choctaw, Coal, Cotton, Craig, Delaware, Haskell, Hughes, Johnston, Latimer, Mayes, McIntosh, Muskogee, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Ottawa, Pittsburg, Seminole, Sequoyah and Wagoner. Officials may add additional counties to the request as damage estimates are compiled in the days to come.
“When all is said and done, this will be one of the most expensive disasters in state history,” said Gov. Henry, “Oklahomans have been through a lot over the past few weeks and are facing an even longer recovery period. The least the state can do is set aside the money that will be needed to help communities rebuild and recover from these storms.”
The federal government is expected to pay a large portion of the disaster response and recovery costs, but state and local authorities will have to pay a percentage of the bill as well. The final total won’t be known for many weeks, but authorities expect the state’s share to exceed $10 million.
At the governor’s request last year, lawmakers deposited $15 million in the State Emergency Fund, but most of that money was quickly spent on unpaid bills from past disasters, including the ice storms of 2000 and 2002. The emergency account now contains only $500,000, a fraction of the amount that will be needed to meet the obligations related to the latest winter storms.
“We need to remember that the emergency fund must pay the cost not just of this disaster, but of any other emergencies that occur the rest of this year. We certainly don’t want to return to past practices of piling up expenses and leaving bills unpaid year after year,” said the governor.
At their peak, the ice and snow storms of December and January left more than 125,000 Oklahomans without power and contributed to at least 32 fatalities. The winter weather felled power lines, trees and other structures, causing additional damage to nearby properties.
Oklahoma has already received one federal disaster declaration to help with response efforts. The second presidential disaster declaration requested by Gov. Henry Monday would allow communities and individuals to seek federal reimbursement for uninsured damages. For individuals, assistance could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses.
“We expect Pres. Bush to act quickly on our request and, as soon as damage assessments are completed in other counties, we will submit disaster requests for them as well. We will push for any and all available federal aid for every county that needs it,” said the governor.
Gov. Henry will formally submit his request for $15 million in emergency funding on Feb. 5 when he unveils his executive budget for the coming fiscal year and lawmakers convene for their annual legislative session.
Today’s funding request is the first in a series of announcements that the governor will use to unveil his legislative program. Over the next two weeks, Gov. Henry will announce the major planks of his 2007 agenda.