Dallas and Texas officials believe the Oct. 20 tornadoes that tore through the county far exceed the dollar amount needed to trigger a presidential disaster declaration. But for the moment, at least, federal emergency officials disagree.
And it might all come down to whether or not the feds believe they should pay to replace a bunch of Dallas’ aging, outdated traffic signals destroyed in the storm.
In large part, this one issue is why it remains unclear whether Washington will help fund the cleanup and rebuilding or leave locals to foot a bill likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
City, county and Dallas ISD officials are waiting on that presidential disaster declaration because it is required for the release of millions in federal relief funds. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to recommend such a declaration because the agency insists the city, county and school district sustained around $32.7 million in uninsured losses.
That’s around $6 million short of the finish line.
The uninsured losses must total $38.5 million before FEMA can recommend the disaster declaration to President Donald Trump. He would then decide whether or not to release the federal funds.
City and state officials believe Dallas alone is well past the $38.5 million mark: Elizabeth Reich, the city’s chief financial officer, told the City Council last month that an estimated $45 million, at least, will be spent on everything from clearing debris to restoring damaged traffic signs and signals to covering overtime costs and renting equipment.
Nim Kidd, head of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said Tuesday he agrees “completely” with city officials.
“We pushed FEMA several times,” he said, “to the point of having the governor ask for an extension to prove the case to our federal partners we’re over the threshold.”
FEMA was supposed to have completed its preliminary damage assessment and compiled its disaster cost documentation at the end of November. But last week, Gov. Greg Abbott asked FEMA to extend its deadline to Dec. 20.
“We’re still not even finished with cleanup, and structural engineers are doing further inspections,” said City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, whose northwest Dallas district was badly damaged by the tornado whose winds reached 140 mph.
Her district includes some of the worst-hit city-owned buildings, including the firehouse in Preston Royal, which was destroyed; the Walnut Hill Recreation Center, which sustained about $1 million in damages; and the fire station on Walnut Hill Lane near Marsh Lane. And, for weeks after the storm, streetlights in District 13 remained dark. Traffic signals at some major intersections are still only temporary.
The city and DISD have insurance to cover the costs of damaged and demolished buildings, including Walnut Hill Elementary School, Cary Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School. The city has a $750,000 deductible, and DISD’s is around $2 million.
FEMA funds would go toward covering the deductibles only.
According to a document from the city’s Office of Emergency Management that was sent to council members Nov. 26, the city says its uninsured damage already totals more than $43 million. That includes more than $9 million for debris removal, almost $30 million related to “roads and bridges” and about $3 million for “emergency protective measures.”
But that document says FEMA is only willing to validate nearly $32.7 million so far — for the entire county.
City officials say one of the biggest discrepancies is over the repair and replacing of traffic signals – that “roads and bridges” listing on the OEM document sent to council members.
City Hall believes it will cost around $30 million to replace what was damaged. But right now, officials say, FEMA is only willing to certify about half that.
Reich says that’s because FEMA is “only crediting the city for replacing what was there but not what needs to be there, which is the latest technology. Those signals were old, the technology wasn’t up to standards, and you can’t replace what was there.”
Kidd said that’s essentially a “bureaucratic problem” caused by the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Said Kidd: Federal funds are meant only to replace or address “things as they were at the time of the event,” not as they should be repaired later.
That tussle over traffic signals, he said, “will be the crux of this.”
Mayor Eric Johnson’s office said in a brief statement that he’s “hopeful that the city will receive federal assistance for our recovery efforts.”
FEMA Region 6 officials in Denton said Tuesday it’s far too early to say whether the area will qualify for a presidential disaster declaration. A brief statement said they are “still working with the state and locals on preliminary damage assessments for the North Texas tornadoes.”
It’s estimated that the Oct. 20 tornado outbreak caused some $2 billion worth of damage across Dallas County – which, when adjusted for inflation, would make it the fourth-costliest storm of its kind in the country since 1950, according to the National Weather Service. Countless businesses remain closed, especially along Walnut Hill Lane between Stemmons Freeway and Marsh Lane. Shopping centers at major intersections still lie in ruins, as though the storm happened only yesterday. And hundreds of families are either in temporary homes or have moved out of the city.
The FEMA money won’t help any of them – it’s meant only for public entities with uninsured losses. And even then, it only goes toward 75% of the total reimbursement. Best-case scenario, Reich told the council last month, the city could be out around $11 million from emergency reserves.
Worst case means the city has to pick up the whole tab, which would bleed dry the city’s $35 million emergency reserves. That’s on top of the millions of dollars’ worth of property tax revenue the city will wind up losing after the Dallas Central Appraisal District reassesses the values of homes damaged or destroyed.
Regardless of what FEMA does, Reich said, the council will have some tough decisions to make in coming months.
“We will have to decide if we budget cut or if taxes need to be raised or if the city depletes its reserves,” she said, “and to me that is problematic, because we’re not at the level of reserves we need to be.”
Abbott’s office said Tuesday that the governor is working with the city “to ensure everything is counted appropriately.” But Kidd said the governor wouldn’t ask Trump for federal assistance if FEMA concludes that Dallas has come up short of meeting the trigger.
“It erodes our credibility if we ask for things we know we’re not eligible for,” Kidd said. “I agree more with the city and the county’s assessment of their damages than FEMA’s assessment. We believe we’re over, but until the folks at Region 6 agree with our numbers, it’s a futile attempt to make that request.”
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Sen. John Cornyn went to Dallas City Hall to discuss the damage and FEMA’s assistance with Johnson, director of Emergency Management Rocky Vaz and council members Gates, Lee Kleinman and Omar Narvaez. Cornyn’s office said Tuesday the senator is well aware of the ongoing back-and-forth, and is setting up a meeting between the Texas congressional delegation and acting FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor.
The statement said only that Cornyn hopes to set that meeting “for as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, the Dec. 20 deadline fast approaches.
“It seems as if this should be declared a disaster,” said Reich, who is tasked with watching the city’s pocketbook in danger of depletion. “It clearly has been for the community, and it will take a long time to recover. We need all the help from our federal partners we can get.”