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Kentucky GOP legislators question officials about tornado, flood relief funds

Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean
Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

Republican lawmakers questioned the efficacy of the state’s relief funds for victims of the 2021 tornado outbreak in western Kentucky and 2022 flooding in eastern Kentucky during a legislative meeting on Wednesday.

The relief funds, established by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, allow the state to take donations from private entities to distribute to those impacted by the natural disasters.

But GOP legislators expressed confusion about how exactly the state distributed money.

During the meeting, Louisville Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher asked officials from the state’s Public Protection Cabinet, which oversees both funds, about the criteria that decides who receives relief funding.

“I'm still trying to figure out or understand who decides who gets what money,” Bratcher said.

Jacob Walbourn, general counsel for the cabinet, said the state used feedback from local government leaders and volunteer groups to determine where money from the disaster recovery funds could help most.

Chris McDaniel, the Republican chair of the Senate budget committee, questioned why the funds were handled by the Public Protection Cabinet, which doesn’t have experience handling disasters.

“Clearly there’s been good that’s happened with this, but there’s also been missteps that’s happened with this,” McDaniel said.

D.J. Wasson, the Public Protection Cabinet secretary’s chief of staff, said disbursements from the funds have paid for items like funerals for victims of the disasters, home repairs for western Kentucky residents impacted by the tornado outbreak, and $500 checks for flood survivors approved for FEMA assistance. He said communities are now crafting long-term recovery plans and sharing their long-term needs with officials who oversee the two relief funds.

“The largest need we have heard and talking with local officials, volunteer organizations, long-term recovery groups is the need for housing,” Wasson said.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, a Democrat from Lexington, defended the state’s handling of the funds.

“It seems to me we’re not talking about any indication where any public moneys were spent, or privately donated funds were either misused or misappropriated funds to anyone who was not harmed or damaged by the tornadoes or floods,” he said.

The state earmarked over $18.6 million in the western Kentucky tornado relief fund to build new homes and repair existing homes, partnering with several nonprofit organizations. More than $1.2 million from the eastern Kentucky fund has been dedicated to building new homes and repairing existing homes impacted by flooding.

The Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund was established in the days following the historic December 2021 tornado outbreak to assist tornado survivors and the families of those who died during the tornado outbreak. More than $52.3 million for the fund has been raised from over 150,000 donors.

Those disbursements from the western Kentucky include about $2 million for uninsured homeowners and renters, $7.7 million for homeowners and renters with insurance, and over $10 million to those approved for FEMA assistance and insured homeowners to address needs that were not covered by FEMA or homeowners' insurance policies.

Wasson also highlighted the Grain Assistance Program, which she said provided over $4.4 million to farmers in western Kentucky.

Beshear established the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund following floods and severe weather in eastern Kentucky in late July last year. That fund has raised more than $13.2 million from over 41,500 donors.

State lawmakers enacted Senate Bill 99earlier this year, which gives legislators oversight over disaster relief funds and in part requires agencies that oversee emergency relief funds to provide a report of analysis of all relief funds each fiscal year.

Hannah Saad is the Assistant News Director for WKMS. Originally from Michigan, Hannah earned her bachelor’s degree in news media from The University of Alabama in 2021. Hannah moved to western Kentucky in the summer of 2021 to start the next chapter of her life after graduation. Prior to joining WKMS in March 2023, Hannah was a news reporter at The Paducah Sun. Her goal at WKMS is to share the stories of the region from those who call it home. Outside of work, Hannah enjoys exploring local restaurants, sports photography, painting, and spending time with her fiancé and two dogs.