WASHINGTON, D.C. — The top leader at the Federal Emergency Management Agency told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Wednesday the hurdles to rebuild four destroyed schools in West Virginia are nearly through.
Peter Gaynar, acting administrator for FEMA, was before the committee chaired by U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito to discuss FEMA’s budget request for the coming fiscal year. However, Capito used the opportunity to quiz him about the slow pace of school restoration in Kanawha and Nicholas Counties.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect the community to get very impatient with the bureaucracy of acquiring property and all of the environmental assessments,” said Capito, R-W.Va.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., commented, “We are going to have a complete class of high school, 9th through 12th grade, who will not have a high school to graduate from.”
Last week FEMA released a million dollars to begin property acquisition for Herbert Hoover High School and Bridge-Clendenin Elementary School in Kanawha County. It came as a breakthrough amid growing anger over the continued delays.
“I think we’re on a glide path to a solution on some of these environmental issues,” said Gaynar. “We think we’re going to be able to resolve these without any more bureaucratic road blocks.”
Residents of Nicholas and Kanawha Counties have been roundly critical of FEMA and state officials for the delays. Capito recently secured a commitment from Region 3 FEMA Administrator MaryAnn Tierney to improve communications between the federal agency and those affected.
Tierney will visit with Manchin and Capito during a trip to West Virginia later this week.
Manchin suggested she will get an earful.
“How does it take so long to get a report,” Manchin asked Gaynar. “If FEMA would make schools a high priority to get those studies done in a more timely fashion. Three years is unacceptable.”
Gaynar agreed the length of time was difficult, but also defended the process.
“The last thing you want is to have the federal government come back and ask you for money you misspent, a ‘clawback’ as we call it,” Gaynar explained. “Sometimes that due diligence takes longer than people like, but it’s in the best interest of FEMA, in this case the best interest of the state, and it’s in the best interest of the taxpayers.”