FORT GIBSON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has arrived in Fort Gibson and Webbers Falls to provide assistance to those who have lost homes or property to near-record Arkansas River flooding. The organization was called in following a disaster declaration from Governor Kevin Stitt for Muskogee, Wagoner and Tulsa counties.
"We are trying to reach out to every survivor who has damage to their homes or their businesses or even if they’re a renter and they’ve had personal losses to contact their insurance company first to see what coverage they have," said FEMA Media Relations Manager Scott Sanders. "If they’re lacking coverage, then they may be eligible for federal disaster assistance."
That help may arrive in the form of FEMA grants or Small Business Administration long-term, low-interest loans, Sanders said. However, people need to register to know whether they are eligible. Registration can be completed at disasterassistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA smartphone application, or by calling 1(800) 621-3362 (FEMA.)
"Registering will begin the process of determining eligibility for federal assistance," Sanders said. "We want to try and get everyone who suffered damage who’s not covered to register. It gives us in the state a more complete picture of where the damage is."
At the Fort Gibson High School gym, which hosts the still-thriving resource distribution center, FEMA has set up a mobile station. People filter intermittently through the station, seeking help with registration and questions about what can be done for them.
"There was 5 feet of water in our house," said Staci Myers, who brought her husband with her to register. "We're working on getting help with pulling things out and getting repairs made so we can move back in."
Myers said the process gave her some measure of peace of mind.
"I feel better after registering," she said.
Once registration was complete, Sanders said, the response should be "pretty quick."
"We’ll try to get inspectors out to people’s homes as quickly as we can out to verify those damages and then we try to get money in people’s hands who are eligible as quickly as we can," Sanders said. "It’s not quite 24-hour turnaround, but it can be close."
Registration isn't the only step those who need repairs and relief should take. Sanders cautioned against other people or groups that may be scheming to steal from those in a bad situation.
"Disasters can bring out the very best in people. I think that’s evident if you go to the distribution center in Fort Gibson, the amount of stuff and commodities stacked up in there is really stunning," Sanders said. "Unfortunately, disasters can also bring out scam artists and people trying to take advantage of you. Really be aware of people trying to take your money."
Sanders noted steps people could take to protect themselves when hiring for repairs: ensure contractors are licensed, reputable, and have necessary permits. Check with the Better Business Bureau as necessary.
"There’s a lot of fly-by-night operations that just blow into town after a disaster and try to take advantage of people," he said. "Don’t be a victim twice."
Even while preparing the federal response to the Arkansas River flood, Sanders praised the more local efforts that came before.
"It’s heartwarming, to be honest with you, to see the care and concern people have for each other," he said. "I’ve been to Oklahoma for a number of disasters and I’ve seen it each and every time, so I think it speaks volumes about the character of this community."