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Days after a 100-mph storm rocked Tulsa and the surrounding area late Saturday night, tens of thousands of residents who remain without power, air conditioning, or Wi-Fi in the blistering heat were demanding to know why Oklahoma’s governor has so far refused to declare a state of emergency.
While Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt (Republicn) and other state leaders attend an Air Show in Paris, his constituents back in Tulsa are desperately navigating blazing hot homes, spoiled food, and price-gouging hotels amid one of the largest power outages in recent memory.
A week after Stitt endorsed Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for President, his delay in requesting federal assistance from Democratic President Joe Biden has led some to question whether it’s a political calculation.
According to the Oklahoman, both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are out of state, which means they themselves can’t declare an emergency. On Tuesday afternoon, Stitt announced he’d directed the highest ranking legislator left in the state to sign an order declaring a State of Emergency. Yet it’s unclear why he or Lt. Gov. Pinnell hadn’t rushed home or directed the next in line to do so sooner.
Around 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, uncommonly high winds of up to 100 miles per hour knocked out power to much of Northeast Oklahoma. As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 166,000 residents in impacted counties remain without power, Tulsa World reported.
With electric utility Public Service of Oklahoma (PSO) reporting they haven’t experienced an outage this severe since a crippling 2007 ice storm, the company has brought in 2,700 employees to assist in restoring power, in addition to the 700 already working since Sunday. PSO reports many residents won’t regain power until Saturday.
Yet for many residents, including the most vulnerable children and elderly, the near-record heat for this time of June adds insult to the injurious weather severely complicating their lives.
At least one person who required a respirator to breathe has already died as a result of the power outage, Tulsa officials reported on Monday.
State and county officials have expanded public safety response teams and opened up cooling stations, charging stations and shelters in the city, with the help of the Red Cross and other private partners. A detailed list of resources compiled by Naomi Andrews can be found here: City/County Government Resources. Yet many elderly and differently-abled individuals can’t access these locations to gain the support they need.
What is a federal emergency declaration?
Instead of immediately declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Stitt enacted emergency waivers in a process that assists in power and storm recovery while he’s out of the country.
“Right now, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security continues to work closely with local jurisdictions as they survey the storm damage and debris, including damage to public buildings, infrastructure, and utilities,” Gov. Stitt said in a response to questions from 2 News.
With Gov. Stitt out of the country, and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, as acting leader of the state, outside of Oklahoma, Pinnell’s Monday night response was heavily criticized.
“Our emergency waivers allow for electric providers to bring in outside help in an expedited manner. That’s happening, & we’re thankful for all the help,” Pinnell tweeted, deflecting from residents who demanded to know why he and Gov. Stitt didn’t simply declare a full state of emergency.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a state of emergency declaration begins with the leader of a state, Tribe, or U.S. territory making an official declaration to the President. The president themself may also declare a state of emergency, funneling federal resources to an affected area that may not exceed $5 million.
“All requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected State,” The U.S. law establishing the disaster response reads in part.
Once the declaration is made, state or tribal leaders then work with the federal agency to assess the damage so that officials may determine the extent of aid needed.
“The request must be based upon a finding that the situation is beyond the capability of the State and affected local governments or Indian tribal government and that supplemental federal emergency assistance is necessary to save lives and protect property, public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster,” according to FEMA requirements.
Biden has come to Oklahoma’s aid before, he can do it again
In late April, President Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state of Oklahoma’s McClain and Pottawatomie counties after severe storms and tornadoes ripped through the communities from April 19 to April 20.
The assistance included “grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” the White House said in a statement on April 24, five days after the storm hit.
It’s unclear why Gov. Stitt hasn’t chosen to immediately return to Oklahoma or direct his next in line to seek federal aid for the thousands of residents desperate for food, shelter and energy. Yet with weather forecasts predicting intense 90+ degree heat for the next several days, vulnerable residents, including those who voted for Stitt, remain living in limbo.
Update: As of Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Stitt has directed the highest ranking legislator in Oklahoma to sign an Executive Order declaring a State of Emergency in counties in Northeastern Oklahoma.