(WBIR-Greene County) It's been more than three years since tornadoes killed more than 300 people across the South, leaving thousands without their homes and businesses, but communities across East Tennessee are still waiting for millions of dollars in reimbursements from the government.
According to Tennessee Emergency Management, TEMA, reimbursement for projects from the presidential disaster in the Eastern Region totals over $41 million, with the state and federal governments still owing local counties and municipalities over $14 million.
"It typically takes about five years to close out a disaster," said Jeremy Heidt, Spokesman and Public Information Officer for TEMA. "What we're waiting on, in a lot of cases, for these disasters, is final inspections from the federal inspectors from FEMA. And so until that happens, we don't release the final amount of the applicant's contracts to them."
In Greene County, where tornadoes killed eight people, destroying dozens of homes in the quaint Camp Creek community, projects racked up to $1.3 million.
"Our first priority was to try to get the roads open to one lane to allow people to get in and emergency vehicles. So we were just cutting trees and getting them open. Just one path, moving them to the side," said David Weems, Road Superintendent with Greene County's Highway Department. "It was widespread. We saw mobile homes up in trees with their anchors pulled out, numerous amounts of trees down, power poles broken off, power lines everywhere. It was just houses out in the road, and it was just terrible."
Weems said crews worked 12-hour days, six days a week, for three months. The county had to front cleanup costs and is still waiting on more than $410,000 from TEMA.
"Fortunately I had about a million dollars in the reserves and I was able to use that money, a little over $800,000, for overtime expenses and equipment and diesel," said Weems. "We've had to put off some paving projects and some mowing and other things to compensate for that money we had to use out of our budget."
How the Public Assistance Program Works
FEMA's Public Assistance Program divides reimbursement into two categories: small and large projects.
Small projects are capped at $63,900, and work over that amount is classified as a large project.
"Small projects don't take near as long to close out, " said Heidt.
For large projects, FEMA is responsible for 75% of the cost, while TEMA and the local government split the remaining 25%.
"It's a reimbursement process so the payments are occurring after the work has already been finished," said Heidt. "This year, one of our goals is to close five, at least five previous presidential disasters.
The storms in February 2008, commonly referred to as the "Super Tuesday Storms", still have contracts that have not been paid.
While the 2011 tornadoes were costly, Heidt said the disaster pales in comparison to the floods in May, 2010.
"We had more than half the state impacted and it was well over that dollar amount," said Heidt.
Local Government Impact
Greene County is not the only local government still waiting on reimbursements.
Knox County's contract totaled $638,948, with a current remaining balance of $424,715. The City of Knoxville racked up $679,095 in projects, and is still waiting on $249,155 in payments back. Bradley County, where twisters killed nine people and destroyed more than 500 homes and businesses, is set to receive more than $2.5 million in total, but has yet to be reimbursed $863,631.
Since TEMA is reliant on FEMA, Heidt said his department has been working with FEMA to expedite the process.
"There is a new administrator in Region 4 for FEMA and we have met with them and his team and they have expressed to them our desire for this speed up because we do recognize there is a large backlog of projects," said Heidt. "This month we got an increase. FEMA actually sent three additional persons to the state to do the final inspections. So they're out there, they're working with local governments to close out those projects."
Beyond the Budget
While local governments have been making due with budget shortfalls, the deadly storm will forever leave its mark on local residents.
"Even this year we've been doing some of the last repairs to our home. The tornadoes pretty much destroyed the roof and all the siding and broke out windows. We also had interior damage where water seeped in," said David Pabst, a Camp Creek resident.
Pabst was home with his wife when two EF3 tornadoes ripped through, killing neighbors in both directions of their two-story country home.
"It was a terrible thing for those families. There's no question about that. And we do feel extremely blessed. We really feel God's hand on us," said Pabst.
Pabst described the sounds of a tornado to a dump truck unloading gravel inside of his home.
"It only lasted 15 or 20 seconds," said Pabst. "You don't expect to see the devastation that a storm like that can cause."
The Pabst's lost their three story barn, and repairs to their home have been expensive, but the family has stayed positive, citing the community banding together in the tragedy.
"Things always work out. God's got a plan," said Pabst. "But it does make you pay closer attention to weather now, at least it does to us. We just don't take things for granted when it comes to weather."
""it's a fear you can't describe," said Weems. "I'm sure it's hard for some people to move forward , you know, after being through this devastation. But I think the community has done well, most of the homes have been replaced and the highway department is trying to move forward from this point on."