Flooding is the deadliest and costliest, natural weather hazard in Missouri, according to the State Emergency Management Agency. 

Washed over by heavy downpours and starved for financial help, small, overlooked communities are at the epicenter of low-attention disasters.

“Economically, many folks are literally hanging on by a thread,” says JoAnn Woody, external relations program manager at the American Red Cross. “It just takes one small emergency to put them over the edge.”

Missouri is brimming with low-attention disasters that receive little to no financial assistance from federal and state government agencies, which prioritize aid distribution following large scale disasters. This leaves volunteer organizations to do the heavy lifting of rebuilding communities when they don’t qualify for government assistance.

Woody remembers the day after the Joplin tornado, which destroyed one-third of the city. On one street, she passed stone houses built in the ’40s and ’50s — their stones smooth and polished — and noticed that the houses were tilted. “The only word I can come up with is, it’s violent,” she remembered telling her friend on the phone.

The Joplin tornado was the costliest tornado in modern U.S. history, causing more than $3 billion in damage. But what about the tornado that damaged 150 homes in Dexter in July or the damaging winds that sounded like a freight train in Perry in the same month?

Funding in a vacuum

Mike Cappannari, external affairs director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says unless there is a presidential declaration of disaster, the agency does not provide any financial assistance to the affected communities.

In Missouri, the ball then falls into the court of the State Emergency Management Agency, which doesn’t have a dedicated budget for disaster relief. The state provides assistance through the Missouri Emergency Human Services, but it does not operate in a vacuum. It partners with other state health agencies, volunteer organizations and faith-based organizations.

Financial responsibility falls to nonprofits and local government agencies after federal and state assistance is given or the disaster doesn’t qualify for the assistance.

A quilt of support

Susan Lutton, the executive director of a free legal program for low-income individuals at Mid-Missouri Legal Services, says most legal issues that surface after a disaster are related to housing. After the tornadoes that touched down in Miller County in 2019, the program helped hundreds of families, she says. “We only have two housing law attorneys and frankly, they’re just overwhelmed,” Lutton says.

This trickle-down effect of funding has created inequities and forced volunteer organizations to find creative ways to rebuild communities.

Gaylon Moss, the disaster relief director at the Missouri Baptist Convention, made up of 2,000 churches, says it relies on an average of $50,000 of annual donations to help pay for recovery actions including cleanup. “The volunteers and their work bring the most value to disaster recovery,” he says.

“Disasters don’t discriminate; they hit any community, any place,” Moss says. Recovery, however, is not so equitable. Undocumented individuals for instance, do not qualify for FEMA assistance and are hesitant to interact with government entities

Some communities have unique challenges while recovering from a natural disaster. When Mark Twain National Forest, a region with rural and poor communities, flooded and qualified for FEMA assistance in 2017, the agency was unable to provide assistance to people without proof of home ownership. “A lot of homes that had passed down over the years from family members, they’ve just lost track of paperwork and didn’t have a deed,” Cappannari says. This prompted FEMA to be flexible about acceptable documents to prove property ownership.

Despite the myriad of nonprofits stepping in to fill the gaps, there’s only so much they can do.

“It can be frustrating,” Woody says. “We all do this because we’re humanitarians — we want to be able to fix things, and we can’t fix it as one organization.”


Who was eligible for FEMA relief dollars after a series of 2019 disasters in Missouri?

A series of floods, tornadoes and severe storms swept Missouri in 2019 and caused estimated damages upwards of $23 million. Following former President Trump’s approval of the state’s request for a major disaster declaration, the public and individual assistance programs became available to disaster survivors. Public assistance funding helps government agencies and some nonprofits in covering repair costs. Individual assistance provides people who are underinsured or uninsured with funds for temporary housing, home repairs and hazard mitigation tools.

This graphic shows the counties under this declaration that were eligible for public or individual assistance following this disaster. People not in counties eligible for FEMA funding had to seek non-governmental assistance. Although not illustrated here, all counties in Missouri were eligible for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which provided funds to help residents prepare for future disaster-related damages.


Sources: Michael Cappannari, external affairs director, FEMA Region 7 and www.fema.gov/disaster/4451.

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