By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Blasting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision against extending, beyond an Aug. 7 deadline, its offer to pick up 90 percent of the cost of tornado debris removal, Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday said he will allocate state money to pay for what FEMA does not.
The governor had asked FEMA to extend its 90 percent coverage of the cost of debris removal beyond an Aug. 7 deadline it had imposed. After the deadline passes Sunday, the federal rate of payment of costs will decline to 75 percent, which is the typical amount FEMA picks up for helping to clear disaster rubble.
Nixon said Joplin, Duquesne and Jasper County do not have the funds to pay the cost because of the damage to their tax bases, and that the costs to the state will “increase dramatically” as a result of the FEMA decision. The sheer volume of the work warranted a federal exception, he said.
Residents, volunteers, the Missouri National Guard and others have worked tirelessly to clean up the May 22 devastation, and FEMA knew weeks ago that the Aug. 7 deadline could not be met, the governor said. “That’s why this decision makes no sense, and that’s putting it nicely,” he said while standing outside a heavily damaged house at 26th Street and Kentucky Avenue where no clearing work has been done.
The state has been plagued with natural disasters this year on top of national economic woes.
In view of the magnitude of attempts to stabilize the state budget, and a historic tornado that killed 160 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, “I am upset; they should have granted it,” Nixon said of the FEMA rejection of his request for the extension.
Nixon was joined in his criticism of the decision by Missouri’s U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, and U.S. Rep. Billy Long, of Springfield.
“This is disappointing,” they said in a joint statement. “Local and state government have worked hard to remove historic levels of destruction with the goal of finishing before the Aug. 7 deadline. The people of Joplin have faced extremely difficult challenges over the last several months and need to be afforded as much flexibility in their cleanup process as possible.” They pledged to work with the governor to support Joplin’s recovery effort.
Nixon said he has tasked state tax officials with the duty of looking at the long-term tax impact of the tornado losses. He said he will track costs closely “to ensure the tax dollars are spent in the most efficient manner.” He has allocated $150 million for state disaster costs. There also is tornado damage in St. Louis and flood damage in several areas of the state.
The governor said that with the amount of debris left, clearing it all cannot be done by Sunday. He said he believes the chore will take another three to four weeks.
An estimated 8,000 homes and 500 businesses were demolished or damaged by the EF-5 tornado that cut a swath six miles long and up to a mile wide through Joplin, as well as destroying or damaging 500 properties in Duquesne and beyond.
FEMA did not wish to respond to the governor’s comments, said Josh deBerge, external affairs specialist with the agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas City.
Earlier this week, officials said that more than 90 percent of the debris had been cleared.
“Our hope is, and all indications show, that we’ll have 100 percent of the debris removed from the expedited debris removal area in the remaining days of the initiative,” deBerge said.
FEMA customarily pays 75 percent of such disaster costs, but it agreed to take on the larger portion of the cost for Joplin after a similar program was used in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the wake of a tornado in April. Tuscaloosa, too, was denied an extension when its deadline arrived July 12.
Joplin officials had asked for a two-week extension of the 90 percent funding as the result of what they said was a delay by the government in getting the work started.
In a news release issued Thursday, city officials said contractors are committed to clearing loose, residential debris by the Sunday deadline.
CITY MANAGER MARK ROHR said in a written statement that “Aug. 7 will come and go, but the spirit of our residents and the many supporting us will continue as we move forward in our recovery. The cleanup of our community in just a couple of months’ time is truly remarkable, and I would like to thank everyone who has responded to our community in our time of need.”