Earlier this month a severe storm pounded North Texas, leaving Allen resident David Dobrenic wishing he had a storm shelter in his house.
“Just a safety factor, you can’t put a price on a life,” said Dobrenic.
Last summer Dobrenic signed his family up for the North Central Texas Safe Room Rebate Program, which helps pay for storm shelters.
From the moment it launched, there’s been an overwhelming amount of interest.
Molly Thoerner, with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, manages the program. She said they had no idea there would be so much demand.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show there are now more than 8,500 families on a waitlist for storm shelter money across 16 North Texas counties.
“Wow. That’s just the waitlist so far? That’s really sad,” said Dobrenic.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned the council of governments only has enough money to fund about 400 new shelters in the next year. At that rate, it would take 21 years to clear the current waitlist.
“I wish that I could give everybody a safe room. I wish that we had enough money to do those things,” said Thoerner.
One problem is funding for the program has come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the local council of governments can’t get enough money from FEMA to keep up with high demand.
Each year FEMA hands out what is known as pre-disaster mitigation money. Four years ago, FEMA awarded $100 million to states. But Congress has cut the amount each year since then. Last year it was just $25 million and that has to be shared across 50 states.
Last year, Texas was only allowed to submit five applications and FEMA did not list storm shelter funding as a top priority.
“If I don’t follow their priorities, I run the risk of not getting any more for Texans,” said Nim Kidd, Chief of Emergency Management for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In a phone interview, Kidd explained his department did not submit a request for more North Texas shelter funding in the last funding cycle because they did not think FEMA would grant it.
Now thousands of families may be waiting longer.
“I think together we can be working with our U.S. Congressional delegation and ask that more money be funded to this program,” said Kidd.
The local council of governments also continues to lobby for more money.
They may be able to apply for other FEMA funds Texas could receive if the state has more federally declared disasters.
“There’s a demand,” said Dev Shapiro, who is one of the fortunate to receive rebate money for his shelter.
It took about a year to install, finish the paperwork and get the rebate check, but Shapiro said it was worth it.
“We really need the money and the government needs to allocate more money for these shelters,” said Shapiro.
FEMA declined NBC 5 Investigates’ request for an on-camera interview saying, “We yield to the local and/or state entities who can better speak to the questions you are posing.”
“My message to them would be to completely rethink this. Like I said, you can’t put a price on human life,” said Dobrenic.
As thousands of families like the Dobrenic’s wait, the state and the council of governments are now telling people if they want protection soon they may be better off footing the bill on their own.
NBC 5 Investigates reached out to local congressmen and senators about the FMEA funding situation, here’s what some of them had to say:
“With more major disasters than any other state, Texas should be a top priority for federal efforts to mitigate risk, and I am committed to working with officials across the state to ensure that Texas is treated fairly when it comes to disaster preparedness and risk mitigation.” – U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
“Under Republican austerity measures, many important functions of our government have been woefully underfunded: Homeland Security, Defense, and social safety nets included. While the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) is no longer accepting applications for individuals to receive rebates for installing safe rooms for protection from extreme weather events, I am glad that that they have set up a waiting list so that North Texans can still be considered as more funds become available. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that pre-mitigation programs are adequately funded in the future.” – Rep. Marc Veasey, TX-33.
Over the last four years, Texas officials say the state received less than one percent of the more than $200 million in FEMA pre-disaster mitigation money granted nationwide.