By James Beaty
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, says he takes very seriously the duty and responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Americans suffering from disasters.
So much so that he is willing to put important work on hold to reiterate that fact.
Inhofe excused himself from a Senate Armed Forces Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Admiral William Fallon — tapped to become the new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East — on Monday to fellowship with FEMA officials on behalf of Oklahomans.
With thousands of Oklahoma residents hurting because of damage and losses incurred from the recent ice storm, Inhofe wanted to find out when the agency expects to make a decision on individual FEMA assistance for state residents who qualify.
Inhofe said he’s been in contact with FEMA Director David Paulison.
“I’ve been talking to him, along with former Admiral Johnson,” Inhofe said, referring to FEMA Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson.
“We anticipate something late Thursday or early Friday,” he said.
“It may not be everything we asked for because there’s competition for these tax dollars. I understand that,” Inhofe said, adding that the amount of money which might be available is not “open ended.”
“I hope it will be a respectable amount,” he said.
FEMA will make a recommendation to President George W. Bush, who will ultimately decide whether to issue the major disaster declaration.
Meanwhile, Inhofe believes FEMA performed much more efficiently as an individual agency, before it became an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
He said FEMA didn’t do as good of a job with Hurricane Katrina.
As ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe had jurisdiction over FEMA when it had been a stand-alone agency.
“We did a lot better job than when they changed,” Inhofe said.
To remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and make it a separate agency again would require action by Congress.
Inhofe said others in the U.S. Senate also believe the American people would be better served if FEMA became an independent agency once more.
“That’s one of the few things that Hillary and I agree on,” Inhofe said, referring to U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who’s a Democratic presidential candidate.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry issued a request for the individual FEMA assistance early last week. Since then, the state has been awaiting a decision, as FEMA says damage reports are still being gathered.
Inhofe, who traveled through McAlester and made a stop in the city after the ice accumulations snapped trees and downed power lines, saw firsthand the damage that resulted from the winter storm.
Oklahoma’s other U.S. senator, Dr. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, has issued a statement concerning the ice storm.
“From the beginning, my staff and I have maintained close contact with local, state and federal officials to ensure FEMA was operating as promised and was responsive to the needs of Oklahoma,” Coburn said.
“I will continue to closely monitor the situation and hold FEMA and other federal agencies accountable to taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, the state Office of Emergency Management continues to urge people with uninsured property losses from the ice storm to call toll-free (877) 628-5297.
Those who had to close businesses, or who could not go to work because their place of employment closed due to the ice storm, are also urged to phone.
The number is not a way to apply for assistance, but the damage reports can help build the state’s case that individual assistance is needed from FEMA, according to state OEM spokesperson Michelann Ooten.