After months of confusion and delays in the RISE WV long-term flood recovery efforts, Governor Jim Justice has vowed to get the program moving “at lightning speed.” “Give us a month and watch what happens,” Justice proclaimed at the end of a lengthy news conference Monday to try to sort out the RISE mess.
This was the first detailed response by Justice since stories began to surface several weeks ago about how RISE had stalled, leaving hundreds of West Virginians who lost their homes in the 2016 flood confused and angry about government foot-dragging.
Justice is moving responsibility for RISE from the state Commerce Department to General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard. Hoyer has been among the boots on the ground since the flood hit and has significant experience with the recovery efforts.
“I understand the mandate,” Hoyer said. “Identify families that still need support from 2016. That’s my charge. I know what he (Justice) wants done. We’ll drive forward and get this fixed.”
The Governor put blame for RISE’s failures on Commerce, which has been in charge of managing the distribution of $150 million in HUD money for housing and infrastructure repairs. “There’s no question whatsoever that Commerce dropped the ball,” the Governor said.
Justice added that people in Commerce will pay the price. “Realignment at the West Virginia Department of Commerce is now underway,” according to a news release from the Governor. “There will be terminations.”
Does that mean Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher is out? When I reached Thrasher he told me, “Relative to my job, I believe we are accomplishing significant things at Commerce and plan on continuing in that role.”
There has been lots of speculation about tension between Thrasher and Justice. These are two successful businessmen who are used to running things. It’s easy to imagine how they would clash, especially now that Justice has blamed Thrasher’s department for the flood relief controversy.
Frankly, Justice was still not clear yesterday on exactly what went wrong at Commerce. He stuck with generalities about the failures. “Somewhere along the way we’ve really lost our way,” he said. No doubt reporters will keep digging on this.
In fairness, coordinating long-term recovery from a disaster and managing the spending of $150 million in the most effective way are extremely complicated tasks. There’s a lot of on-the-job training, mistakes are going to happen and delays are inevitable.
But it is also appropriate to remember that Justice campaigned for the job by promising to use his private sector experience to turn West Virginia around. “I done done it,” Justice liked to say on campaign trail of his business success.
Well, it’s not easy to run West Virginia and managing a disaster is the ultimate challenge. RISE WV is getting a needed reboot and, for the sake the flood victims and flood-damaged communities, let’s hope the Justice administration gets it right this time.