- Associated Press - Sunday, May 20, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — The cost of 30 manhole covers that got sucked away: $5,800. A new concession stand at the destroyed high school: $228,600. Shelter and care for more than 1,300 homeless pets: $372,000.

The tornado that tore through Joplin a year ago already ranks as the deadliest twister in six decades. Now it carries another distinction - the costliest since at least 1950.

Insurance policies are expected to cover most of the $2.8 billion in damage. But taxpayers could supply about $500 million in the form of federal and state disaster aid, low-interest loans and local bonds backed by higher taxes, according to records obtained by the Associated Press and interviews with federal, state and local officials.

Almost one-fifth of that money was paid to contractors who hauled off debris. Tens of millions more dollars went to individuals for temporary housing and other living expenses in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Additional money could help subsidize construction of a new hospital to replace one that was irreparably damaged.


All told, about two dozen school districts, emergency agencies, public housing authorities, religious groups and other nonprofits could receive taxpayer money through a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The outpouring of assistance is nowhere near the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and damaged property along a wide swath of the Gulf Coast in 2005. Yet the Joplin tornado raises questions anew about the government’s role in disasters.

For Joplin families still on the long road to recovery, the taxpayer aid generally is appreciated.

The twister killed Danielle Robertson’s mother and destroyed the duplex she shared with her teenage daughter and two dogs. After several months of temporary living arrangements, Ms. Robertson eventually got one of the FEMA trailers for tornado survivors. No rent or utility payments were required.

“There are just thousands of people who would not have recovered at all had that aid not been there. I mean there’s no way,” said Ms. Robertson, who finally moved into a rebuilt rental home about three weeks ago. “I like to consider myself a survivalist, but there was nothing to survive with.”

The Joplin tornado, which killed 161 people, was one of 99 major disasters declared by President Obama in 2011.

Missouri has a rainy day fund with about $500 million that was created for costly emergencies. But the fund hasn’t been tapped for Joplin because Gov. Jay Nixon and some lawmakers are reluctant to trigger a constitutional mandate that the borrowed money be replenished within three years.

Some critics of federal disaster aid point to Missouri’s rainy day fund as a prime example of how states pass the buck to the federal government for local tragedies.

“It seems to me this indicates the bad incentive problem that comes with federal involvement - that states would rather tap federal taxpayers before they have to tap their own taxpayers,” said Chris Edwards, an economist and editor of downsizinggovernment.org, a website run by the Washington-based Cato Institute.