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Vice President Joe Biden helped celebrate the opening of a rebuilt Joplin High School in 2014.

Joplin (Mo.) district haggling with FEMA over recovery funds for damage from deadly 2011 tornado

Oct. 16, 2017
District contends that it should get an additional $62 million in federal aid to pay for rebuilt schools.

More than six years after a deadly tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., the school district still is haggling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the amount of money it’s due for the facilities that have been rebuilt.

The Associated Press reports that the Joplin district has seven appeals involving more than $70 million of denied costs pending at FEMA’s regional or national headquarters. The key issue is whether FEMA underestimated what it would cost to rebuild schools, or whether the district is stretching FEMA rules to try to collect as much cash as possible for its improved facilities.

The school district also has received money from an insurance settlement and a voter-approved bond issue. But school officials say the FEMA funding disputes are financially straining the district; it had to take out a $14 million, 10-year loan earlier this year while it awaits a final resolution from FEMA officials.

“I have a great deal of empathy for them, because as caretakers of taxpayer dollars, just simply because (applicants) send a bill, they shouldn’t be paying it," says said Ron Lankford, Joplin School District’s interim chief financial officer. "They need to validate that it went for its intended purpose.”  But he added: “In dealing with the federal bureaucracy ... the reality is it is a very slow, cumbersome process.”.

FEMA Public Assistance Director Christopher Logan acknowledges the agency has done a poor job resolving appeals quickly. But he says FEMA is trying to clear a backlog of appeals by next year while dealing with a new wave of disasters that includes several Gulf Coast and Atlantic hurricanes and wildfires in the West.

Local governments and nonprofit organizations that are denied some or all of their requested disaster aid can appeal first to one of FEMA’s 10 regional offices. If denied again, they can lodge a second appeal with its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, about 280 first appeals are in the works; 66 second appeals are under review. That includes some stemming from disasters as far back as 17 years ago.

The May 22, 2011, tornado that killed 161 people in the Joplin area was part of a series of storms and floods across Missouri that resulted in about 1,800 FEMA disaster projects, totaling $174 million of approved federal aid so far. About $40 million of that amount is money approved for dozens of Joplin school projects, according to FEMA records. The district contends it should get more than twice that much.

Joplin school officials say FEMA has significantly underestimated the cost to rebuild the facilities. The district cites an engineering analysis that the square footage of the old high school was underestimated by about 5 percent, and that FEMA should have allowed costs for an underground water drainage system needed to meet city codes. The district also says FEMA should have approved a 17 percent cost hike because of a labor shortage and “adverse economic conditions.”

The appeals ask for the project caps to be raised by more than $70 million, which the district said would result in an additional $62 million of aid based on its actual costs.

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