Cherokee County is on a list of counties without approved hazard mitigation plans in place, Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson confirmed this week.

Only 105 Oklahoma cities and 28 of the state’s 77 counties have disaster plans, which are required to collect federal money for protection against disasters such as tornadoes, ice storms and wildfires.

To cut disaster losses, the federal government required communities to develop detailed disaster prevention plans by Nov. 1, 2004, but extensions were granted when the plans weren’t completed on time.

Dotson said the city of Tahlequah is working toward a plan. Assistant EM Director Mike Underwood has been working with city officials on the project.

Tahlequah city councilors adopted a resolution Tuesday night calling for the Local Emergency Planning Commission to form an advisory panel, with the city’s Technical Advisory Committee as a hazard mitigation advisory group. The TAC has representatives from various city departments.

The citizen advisory committee will collect data on natural hazards and their impact on public safety, health and property; involve the general public; review all mitigation activities currently being implemented; keep the public informed on its recommendations; and prepare and submit a recommended hazard mitigation plan to the mayor and council by July 25, 2008.

Dotson said the previous Cherokee County commissioners contracted with Eastern Oklahoma Development District to formulate the county plan.

“They [EODD] came up with a preliminary plan, and we had a meeting on it,” he said. “I was asked to look it over and make any recommended changes.”

Dotson did offer some suggestions, but that’s the last he’s seen or heard about the county’s strategy.

The plans must meet both state emergency management and FEMA approval, he said.

While communities without plans still would receive disaster money, they might not be eligible for grant money to help protect against future disasters, said Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Emergency Management Department.

The grants can add up to 15 percent of the declaration. For example, a $10 million federal disaster could mean an additional $1.5 million in disaster prevention funds for communities with approved plans.

“There are natural disasters, such as flooding, where additional funds are available if a community has a plan in place,” Ooten told the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, if you don’t have a hazard mitigation plan, you won’t be eligible for these additional funds.”

She said some cities that submitted plans have not received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The approval process is supposed to take about six months, but it could take longer because of a shortage of emergency management officials after hurricanes Rita and Katrina, according to Ooten.

“There certainly has been a slowdown on FEMA’s end,” Ooten said. “After leaving our office, it may go back and forth for revisions before it gets approved. It’s not uncommon for it to take more than a year.”

Ron Flanagan, principal planner with an Oklahoma-based firm that helps communities develop disaster prevention plans, said writing a plan that meets federal requirements can take even longer than the approval process itself.

Flanagan is involved in helping the city of Tahlequah develop its hazard mitigation plan, Dotson said.

In addition to helping Tahlequah develop a plan, Flanagan has assisted communities such as Bartlesville, Yukon, Piedmont and Stillwater.

“Since FEMA’s planning requirement was an unfunded mandate, few communities have the money, knowledge or resources to develop the plans,” Flanagan explained. “For a plan to be well-researched and practical, the planning process may take two to three years.”


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