CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice says there was no way to know until recently that West Virginia’s pace of administering long-term relief funding was far slower than people’s expectations.
“If I would have known that the guy in Clendenin was going to the bathroom in the port-a-potty every day and there really wasn’t anybody there to help him, but if I would have been sitting on the top of the dome 24-7, I wouldn’t have known about the guy in Clendenin,” the governor said at a news conference last Wednesday.
“Because to be just as honest as I know how to be, from the standpoint of even the Guard, from the standpoint of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men in my office, from the standpoint of other legislators, there was no antennas up anywhere. Nobody, nobody was screaming from the mountaintops that there was a problem anywhere.”
But victims of West Virginia’s devastating 2016 floods have been reaching out to the Governor’s Office for months with complaints about the stagnant recovery, according to communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by West Virginia MetroNews.
One plea was from Christina Roop, her husband and their four children, who all thought their stay in a camper would be temporary. Now it’s going on two years.
“It’s taken forever,” Roop said last week. “It’s been ridiculous.”
She started calling RISE West Virginia, the state office meant to handle long-term flood relief. At first, she called every two weeks. Then she called every week. Then every other day. Then every day.
Roop was able to get a voice on the other end of the line, but never one that could provide a specific timetable for help.
So she decided to take her questions to the next level.
“I’m the one who called the Governor’s Office. I said if this is a state-run grant program then he needs to know what the hell is going on.”
Her call was noted.
An email from April 10 described Roop’s message and was passed along to top figures in the Justice administration such as general counsel Brian Abraham, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and Mary Jo Thompson, director of community advancement and development in the Commerce department.
“To this date, Ms. Roop stated she has waited patiently for information regarding when her home construction will start,” the email conveyed. “She says there has been one excuse after another, and she’s frustrated.”
Roop went on to provide more details, including that the 29-foot camper her family was calling home had no water or heat.
“She says she is told one lie after another and would like some answers,” the email said. “Please have someone contact Mrs. Roop and discuss her concerns as soon as possible.”
Roop and her family are still living in the trailer near Big Chimney on the site where their house was destroyed in 2016’s floods. That’s where they still hope to get help.
Reached last week on the telephone, Roop said calling the Governor’s Office seemed like the only way to get attention for their plight.
Over the past week, Governor Justice has said several times and several ways that he didn’t realize West Virginia flood victims weren’t getting the help with housing they had expected months ago.
“Actually, I can believe that,” Roop said. “That’s why I contacted the Governor’s Office in the first place to let them know that’s what’s going on.”
Over almost a month now, the spotlight has been on the Justice administration’s response to long-term flood relief.
Public scrutiny began with the revelation that in February the administration had paused a contract with a consultant hired to manage federal flood relief dollars. The examination was to determine whether the contract went through the proper purchasing procedures and to ensure the state was getting proper value.
That drew greater attention to whether the state had made enough progress in providing long-term relief in the nearly two years since the devastating June 2016 floods.
West Virginia was allotted $149.8 million in Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Because that money is meant for long-term relief such as housing, infrastructure and economic development there is a lot of planning and significant buildup. Federal rules also play a heavy role.
But many people, including the governor, thought the help would be available much sooner than it actually has been. A press release about RISE noted that applications started last August, with 1,100 families being served. The reality seems to be that many were in the system but continued to wait.
“What was being told to these people last summer was we’re going to be building houses tomorrow. The reality is, there was no hope it could be done tomorrow last summer,” Justice said last week. “People were told stuff erroneously. I had no clue people were told stuff erroneously.”
West Virginia made its request to start using federal long-term relief money on Jan. 29.
HUD gave its OK on Feb. 20.
About that time was when the Governor’s Office put the pause on the contract to administer the funds.
By the time a performance report was put out by HUD covering this past January through March, only $1,138,866.60 had actually been spent. Housing and Urban Development labeled West Virginia a slow spender, an official designation.
On March 22, in a public appearance before state contractors, Justice was asked where matters stood with RISE.
Justice, who was deeply involved with early flood relief efforts in Greenbrier County, needed to ask for an assist.
In three press conferences over the past week, Justice said the controversy over the contract actually helped expose the need to pick up the pace with long-term recovery.
Before that, he said, no one knew.
“We all were led to believe things were OK, and they weren’t OK,” the governor said during a news conference Thursday.
He continued, “Everybody was halfway lulled to sleep that things were OK. And you had a lot of voices out in the wilderness that were still hurting. And we discovered it by the pause.”
Justice expanded a few minutes later, ticking off the groups that he said were unaware that expectations for flood relief hadn’t matched up with tough reality.
“All of us should take ownership, me included,” Justice said. “All of the people in the Governor’s Office. If people said I sat on top of the dome, 24-7, every single second — no one came to me and said we’ve got a problem here.”
He added, “From the legislative side — and I’m not casting stones — no one came to my office and said ‘Governor, there’s a problem, there’s a problem.’ So absolutely, I’m your governor. I take responsibility for any and all. But I’m telling you there’s a lot, a lot, a lot of antennas that could have gone up and told the governor we’ve got a problem.”
The calls and letters were coming.
Whether they went up the chain to the governor is less clear.
Flood victim William Hanshaw of Kanawha County reached out to the Governor’s Office several times, starting as early as Nov. 2, 2017.
From Justice’s constituent services: “The Office of Governor Jim Justice received a phone call from Mr. William Hanshaw today regarding his concern with not having any correspondence with RISE West Virginia regarding when the work on his home will begin, after finding out he had been approved.
“He claims he has been waiting for ‘two months’ and is afraid winter is going to come and he will have no preparations done to his home, due to being told by RISE West Virginia not to do any work to his home while awaiting services from them.”
Hanshaw contacted the Governor’s Office again on Dec. 7.
He wanted to clear up confusion about whether his home had truly been declared condemned. He also remained in the dark about whether RISE was going to be able to help him at all.
“Mr. Hanshaw claims he does not know why this was not made clear before he applied for services and feels ‘lied to’ by RISE WV,” a caseworker for the governor’s office wrote in an email describing the flood victim’s concerns.
Followup emails showed that Hanshaw’s frustrations were being conveyed to managers at RISE West Virginia and with Horne LLP, the consultant managing the relief grant.
More flood victims also reached out to the Governor’s Office.
Last Nov. 9, the office received a letter from flood victim Rebecca Brown of Fayette County. She had gotten a letter from RISE saying she wasn’t eligible for assistance, but she had not received an explanation.
“I am so disappointed in the system,” Brown wrote. “We can’t seem to get any help although we indeed lost everything in the flood.”
Brown’s plea did go somewhere — to RISE and to Horne.
Their response was that Brown was ineligible because her household income limit exceeded $33,500. “Regarding her letter, it should have included the reason and we apologize about that,” wrote Trey Breckenridge of Horne.
On Dec. 11, flood victim George Leeson called the Governor’s Office with concern about RISE and whether his home was properly designated as being in a flood way.
“Overall, he is asking that RISE WV look further into his case and address his concerns related to RISE WV saying he is in a flood way and not in a flood plain.”
His complaint, too, was passed along to RISE.
This winter and spring, through the pause on the flood management contract, those kinds of complaints continued to flow in to the Governor’s Office.
On April 2, flood victim Margo Ward called about her rental property and her RISE application. “She claims that she has been given no proposed timeline and that ‘no one is telling her what’s happening.”
On May 21, a day before the first official public statement about the slow pace of long-term relief, Bobby Schoolcraft of Clay County got in touch with the Governor’s Office. His trouble was with communications and cooperation with another contractor.
“He said that his mobile home is in place and ready, except for electric hook-up, water pumps and a few other things. Thompson Construction will not talk to him anymore and he does not know the status. Can we have someone call him with any information you may have?”
With each email, the Governor’s Office directed questions to RISE and Horne. Almost always there was a reply back with a clarification or a status update.
It’s not clear if the questions from constituents sounded alarms up higher in the Governor’s Office.
Justice was asked at one of his three press conferences last week if his office had been keeping tabs with Commerce.
“There’s no question whatsoever that Commerce has dropped the ball,” the governor said last Monday. “There’s no question that people within the Governor’s Office should be staying in touch and knowing what’s going on. And we felt like we were. The dialogue we felt like was progress.”
Justice’s broader response is that attention to the problems has led to a change. The governor has given Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard the responsibility of cutting through red tape, improving communication and prioritizing staffing.
The governor and Hoyer also plan to work more closely with West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which took an early lead on case management for flood victims.
Roop and her family live only about seven minutes from the state Capitol, so they’re disappointed that they haven’t received attention and help already.
But in the past week, Roop said she’s seen new signs of progress.
“We have a little bit of hope now because of my caseworker through WV VOAD, but I blame RISE for the situation we’re in right now because they promised they were going to get things done and they’ve never done anything,” she said. “You haven’t started with the first hammer and nail.”