CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice plans to transfer most of the authority for West Virginia’s long-term flood relief effort, promising faster, more responsive results.
“Give us a month. Give us a month and find out what happens,” the governor said at the conclusion of today’s news conference at the Capitol.
Justice said his administration will reduce the authority of Department of Commerce, which has been managing federal long-term relief funds, and instead place it largely with Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard.
He made some statements that prompted those who watched to question whether Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher would keep his job.
“There needs to be realignment within the Commerce Department. There absolutely are shortcomings and pitfalls that have happened within Commerce. Now that we know what we know today,” Justice said.
When a reporter asked about the timetable of a Commerce realignment, Justice answered: “Is this afternoon soon enough?”
Thrasher, contacted by MetroNews, said he has no plan to leave Commerce.
“Relative to my job, I believe we are accomplishing significant things at Commerce and plan on continuing in that role,” Thrasher stated.
The Governor’s Office followed up this afternoon with a statement that said in part: “Gov. Jim Justice said today a realignment at the West Virginia Department of Commerce is now underway; there will be terminations.”
The governor spoke today at a news conference after weeks of questions about the pace of recovery through the RISE West Virginia program.
He was accompanied by Hoyer plus Jenny Gannaway of West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Habibi Mamone of the charitable Neighbors Loving Neighbors, Jimmy Gianato of WV Homeland Security, senior adviser Bray Cary and Chief of Staff Mike Hall.
Hoyer said his first priority is identify how many people still have housing needs “and get the process moving faster to address those needs.”
Complaints have become increasingly public during the past couple of weeks about the pace at which RISE has administered millions of dollars in long-term flood relief from the federal government.
West Virginia RISE in the Department of Commerce in the Justice administration is the state agency designated to manage Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of the $149,875,000 West Virginia has available, the state still has $148,736,333 left on hand.
West Virginia made its request to start using the money this past Jan. 29. HUD gave its OK on Feb. 20.
Within that broader issue, have been questions about why the Governor’s Office halted a contract with a consultant tasked with managing the federal dollars.
Justice defended the pause on the contract, calling it an act of caution and saying it delayed nothing since the money had just been made available.
“Is there anyone out there who thinks the pause slowed things down?” the governor asked.
“Without question we know we’re going to save millions of dollars by the so-called pause. The next statement is, we know now where the problems were and we’re going to fix it in a way that things move at light speed compared to how they’re moving before.”
He also described expectations for quick relief that hadn’t been delivered.
“The HUD dollars did not arrive. We couldn’t spend the HUD dollars until after Feb. 23. So what was being told to people last summer is we’re going to be building houses tomorrow. The reality is, there was no hope it could be done tomorrow,” he said.
He added, “People were told stuff erroneously. I had no clue people were told stuff erroneously. From either internal or external.”
Aside from a press release last week in which the governor said the RISE program was getting up and running again, this was the first time the administration has addressed issues with long-term relief.
This is all in response to a flood that hit West Virginia on June 23, 2016. Some counties were hit with 10 inches of rain over 24 hours.
Twenty-three people were killed. There were 1,200 homes destroyed, and thousands were without power. The flood damaged businesses, roads and water and sewer systems.
Here’s a timeline of what’s happened on long-term relief: