Kentucky governor says state-run disaster relief funds can serve as model for getting aid to victims

Dec 7, 2023, 2:11 PM

State-run disaster relief funds that funneled millions in charitable donations to tornado- and flood-stricken Kentucky can serve as models for quickly getting aid to storm victims, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday in response to an auditor’s review of the programs.

The Democratic governor portrayed the findings as a vindication of how the relief funds were managed, showing that millions could be quickly and accurately doled out without lengthy application processes. Beshear set up the funds following tornadoes that ravaged parts of western Kentucky in late 2021 and massive flooding that inundated the state’s Appalachian region in 2022.

The special examination of the funds by state Auditor Mike Harmon’s office was released this week. It determined that inappropriate payments from the tornado relief fund amounted to a tiny fraction of the total spent through June 30 of this year. Those inappropriate payments included duplicate payments, overpayments and payments to people later deemed ineligible, the report said. The mistaken payments represented a 0.57% error rate, it said.

The majority of the mistaken payments were $1,000 secondary payments to victims. Those payments had an error rate of just over 2%, the report said.

The review of the flood relief fund found no inappropriate payments, the auditor’s office said.

Those findings show that the funds are well run and the money was well spent, Beshear said Thursday. And it indicates the state’s management got better with more experience, he said.

“It ought to be an approach and a vehicle that we use in the future, because it’s so hard for families to get the help they need immediately,” he said at his weekly news conference at the statehouse in Frankfort.

The funds raised tens of millions of dollars through charitable donations from individuals and organizations from around the world, according to their websites. They paid funeral expenses of storm victims, provided direct payments to survivors and have aided long-term recovery efforts.

Beshear consistently defended the funds’ management amid the heightened scrutiny. He previously said the relief funds are “fully transparent,” having undergone scrutiny from the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature and open-records requests for documentation.

Massive amounts of federal and state assistance have poured into the stricken regions as the recovery continues, but the charitable relief funds provided an important bridge for victims, Beshear said Thursday.

“Given that no one had to apply for the direct funds, no one had to apply for the funeral funds, and we had below a 1% error rate, I’m proud of how these funds were expended and the amount of help that they provided,” the governor said.

Requiring an application process for those funds would have meant delays of weeks or months in getting the aid to victims, Beshear said.

The launch of the auditor’s review was announced earlier this year at the request of a GOP-led legislative panel, coming in the midst of the state’s heated gubernatorial campaign. Beshear, who was front and center after the storms hit and was widely praised for mobilizing support for the hard-hit regions, called the timing of the review “grossly political” at the time.

The findings were released nearly a month after the Democratic governor won reelection to a second term in red-state Kentucky, capping one of the nation’s most closely watched campaigns this year.

Questions about the funds’ management surfaced after a state agency issued $1,000 payments to tornado victims from one of the funds. Reports surfaced that some people unaffected by the storm were mistakenly sent payments. The Lexington Herald-Leader and WPSD-TV reported on the misdirected checks. Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a measure that Beshear signed to create a layer of oversight for such relief funds.

The governor has made numerous trips to both hard-hit regions while overseeing the recovery. Beshear said Thursday that he will be in the tornado-stricken towns of Mayfield and Dawson Springs this weekend to mark the second anniversary of the deadly tornadoes. During his visit, he will preside over a ceremony where keys to 10 new homes will be handed over to tornado survivors, his office said.

“To those in western Kentucky, just because it’s been two years doesn’t mean we’re going anywhere,” Beshear said Thursday. “We love you. We are going to see this through — every home and every life rebuilt. That is our continuing, unwavering commitment.”

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Kentucky governor says state-run disaster relief funds can serve as model for getting aid to victims