March 2 Ohio tornado relief: Where did the money go?

Local counties split $5 million in tornado relief

MOSCOW, Ohio - Clermont County Commissioner David Uible has experienced one natural disaster with FEMA's help and one without it. He liked it better with the assistance the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Uible is the owner of Wellex Manufacturing. Its four-employee valve shop lost its roof when a tornado hit the Ohio River village of Moscow March 2, killing a longtime village councilwoman, demolishing 12 of its 101 homes and heavily damaging another 19.

FEMA rejected a request for federal disaster aid in Ohio, but agreed to provide help for 27 counties in Kentucky and Indiana that were hit by the same storm system.

One year later, Uible's valve shop remains vacant, its roof gone, four employees and machines relocated to Amelia. Several buildings in Moscow are in even worse shape.

"In 1997, my office was down on Front Street in New Richmond, when the flood wiped out everything," Uible said. "FEMA stepped in and the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) stepped in and we were taken care of. We rebuilt quickly. No costs were spared. We were better off after the flood than before. It was quite a shot in the arm. This time, we had help from Home Depot and others, a lot of volunteerism from the county. But from the standpoint of getting help to rebuild, no, there was no assistance there."

An analysis of federal disaster spending provides some evidence to bolster Uible's claim. But a year later, an examination of various funding shows that Clermont actually received emergency funding comparable to its counterparts in Northern Kentucky.

Still, Uible's perception is a commonly held view in Moscow, where residents complain about Ohio's limited response to the storm, FEMA's rejection of disaster aid and flood insurance rules that made it difficult to repair their damaged properties.

"I have little confidence in the government," said Moscow homeowner Joel Knueven. "When it first happened, we weren't allowed back in, but [Ohio Governor] John Kasich was in my house on television. It was infuriating."

Knueven is rebuilding his historic home, where abolitionist Thomas Fee sheltered fugitive slaves in the 1800s. He considers himself lucky to have had insurance covering full replacement. Nearby, his neighbors are still struggling to repair storm damage.

Knueven wonders what happened to money raised on their behalf.

"I'm not saying anyone's stealing the money. I'm just saying, ‘Where is it?' No one wants to find out," he said.

Village Administrator Sandra Ashba said some homeowners had trouble with insurance companies and contractors. Some had trouble with the Clermont County building department. Some found it difficult to navigate other government programs that steered tornado aid to Clermont and Brown counties. But in the end, government help was lacking, she said.

"The money was well spent. There just wasn't enough of it. The disaster was handled by the state Emergency Management Agency. After a couple of weeks, they wanted to go home. We were left struggling," Ashba said.

Clermont County Building Department Director Carl Lamping said the government's response was not the issue.

"The answer tends to lie with the property owner having insurance or not," he said. "You had areas of the county where property owners had the money to pay for construction costs. Those buildings are repaired."

Next page: Where the money went

[Where the money went]

One thing is clear: The financial losses from last year's storms were large. The 107 tornadoes that touched down in the Midwest and Tennessee Valley between Feb. 29 and March 3 produced 170,000 insurance claims totaling $1.2 billion, according to an April, 2012 report by Aon Corp., the world's largest insurance broker.

State and federal disaster agencies, which cover uninsured damages, sent $45 million to Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Tri-State counties received slightly more than $5 million of that.

On average, Ohio counties got about $350,000 in tornado aid from the state, while Kentucky and Indiana counties saw $1 million each from FEMA.

But the numbers are more comparable when broken down by tornado spending county-by-county in the Tri-State:

·      Ohio's EMA said $518,230 was disbursed to local governments in Clermont and Brown counties as reimbursement for crews that cleared storm debris. Another $189,000 helped provide shelter for people left homeless by the storm.

"Most of that money went to homeowners and renters in Clermont County," said Laura Adcock, grant administrator in the recovery branch of Ohio EMA.

·      FEMA provided county-level data showing Kenton County has been approved for $608,944 in federal aid to local governments and individual households, the highest amount locally. Pendleton, Grant and Campbell counties split an additional $732,426, according to FEMA.

·      The U.S. Small Business Administration made $618,000 in loans to homeowners and businesses in Brown and Clermont counties following the storm, according to Ohio's EMA. WCPO Digital contacted the Small Business Administration for a storm tally in FEMA-declared disaster areas and found comparable amounts for the four Northern Kentucky counties and Ripley County in Southeast Indiana. Kenton County received the most help from SBA, with $1.5 million in loans approved to 15 homeowners and one company.

·      The Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati last March announced a $5 million grant program that made up to $20,000 available to storm victims in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

About 160 grant requests totaling $2.6 million have been received by the bank, including five in Clermont County, two in Brown County, three in Campbell County and eight each in Pendleton and Kenton counties. 

"Not all of the money has been disbursed yet," said FHLB spokesman John Byczkowski. "The average request is just short of $17,000."

·      Clermont County's Community & Economic Development Department has pitched in with $80,000 for demolition of damaged properties through its Neighborhood Stabilization Program and $125,000 for repairs through its Community Housing Improvement Program.

·      Private charities chipped at least $70,000 in additional aid. Clermont County's Long-Term Recovery Committee delivered $35,500 in donated goods to 58 Clermont residents, while Matthew 25 Ministries donated $31,500 in Home Depot and Walmart gift cards. Duke Energy Corp. donated $10,000 toward a tree-planting program in Moscow that led to dozens of new trees, chosen by horticulturists from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and planted by 75 volunteers in September.

Next page: Mired in red tape

[Mired in red tape]

Uible doesn't dispute that resources were available, but he added that government assistance doesn't begin and end with money.

He argues red tape proved to be his biggest impediment to rebuilding his 3,000-square-foot valve shop on Elizabeth Street in Moscow. Apart from the Duke Energy power plant next door, Wellex was Moscow's largest private employer.

Uible said he had a $512,000 insurance policy that turned out to be useless for his company, thanks to a little-known federal rule that keeps people from rebuilding in a flood plain.

"I thought I was doing the right thing by being self sufficient and having a lot of insurance," said Uible, who bought the Wellex plant in 2001. "But in the end, FEMA really tripped me up. I'm not looking for a handout. I just wish FEMA would have gotten out of the way."

A FEMA spokeswoman said the flood rules are administered locally by the Clermont County building department and should be well known to property owners. They're part of the National Flood Insurance Program, which Moscow joined in 1972.

"These are Moscow's rules," said Clermont Buildings Director Carl Lamping.

"Moscow contracts with the county to administer their rules Moscow adopted these rules to participate in the national flood insurance program. If they hadn't adopted the rules, insurance rates would be unreasonably high. The rules are in place to reduce future insurance liability."

The rules require that all buildings substantially damaged by natural disasters be lifted out of the 100-year flood plain unless the building is historic or repairs are limited to 50 percent of the property's value.

"The value of that building was $80,000," Uible said. "To the company, it was worth a whole lot more. It was a great location for us. But because it was only worth 80, according to FEMA, we're only allowed to invest $40,000 to rebuild. The actual cost to repair the roof would have been $75,000. To rebuild completely would have required us to elevate the building about five feet. That would have cost $420,000. So, in the end, FEMA restrictions kept us from rebuilding."

Lamping said Uible the two had lengthy discussions about ways to deal with the flood plain rules; ultimately, Uible did not provide any documentation required for a final decision on the matter. And he didn't take advantage of an appeals process set up for resolving disputes.

"It's a business decision by the property owner," Lamping said.

Uible said he didn't know about the rule until after the storm and thinks FEMA and county officials could have been more flexible in helping him.

Moscow Mayor Tim Suter said the reasons for the tiny village's slow recovery are as numerous as the 200-year-old bricks that litter lots. But in the end, he shares Uible's view that the village would have fared better with more federal help.

"The federal government, I think, they failed sadly," Suter said. "State government, I won't say they did everything I thought they were going to do, but they did OK.  Faith-based organizations that came in after a couple weeks and started helping individual families, that was the biggest positive thing out of this."

"If it hadn't been for them," Suter, added, "I don't know where we'd be."

Where the money went
State and federal agencies shipped more than $45 million in disaster aid to Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana after the March 2 tornado. Here's a look at where that money landed locally
Amount County Description      
                                 $3,650.00 Campbell Disbursed by FEMA to homowners, renters      
                              $95,000.00 Campbell SBA loans to three homeowners      
                              $98,650.00 TOTAL CAMPBELL        
                           $518,230.00 Clermont, Brown Disbursed by Ohio EMA to local governments      
                            $188,964.00 Clermont, Brown Disbursed by Ohio EMA to renters and homeowners in Clermont, Brown counties
$619,800.00 Clermont, Brown SBA loans, according to Ohio EMA
                            $1,326,994.00   TOTAL CLERMONT/BROWN    
                               $152,715.00 Grant Disbursed by FEMA to homowners, renters
                                 $11,983.00 Grant Disbursed by FEMA local governments
                                   $7,800.00 Grant SBA loan to one homeowner
                          $172,498.00 TOTAL GRANT  
                               $511,859.00 Kenton Disbursed by FEMA to homowners, renters
                          $97,085.00 Kenton Disbursed by FEMA local governments
                      $1,496,800.00 Kenton SBA loans to 15 homeowners and 1 business
                            $2,105,744.00 TOTAL KENTON  
                               $306,274.00 Pendleton Disbursed by FEMA to homowners, renters
                               $166,454.00 Pendleton Disbursed by FEMA local governments
                               $640,200.00 Pendleton SBA loans to 11 homeowners
                            $1,112,928.00 TOTAL PENDLETON  
                               $120,682.00 Ripley Disbursed by FEMA to homowners, renters
                                 $78,399.00 Ripley Disbursed by FEMA local governments
                               $238,200.00 Ripley SBA loans to 4 homeowners
$437,281.00 TOTAL RIPLEY  
$5,254,095 GRAND TOTAL   
Sources: Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Small Business Administration, Clermont County Department of Community Development


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