CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Questions continue over whether West Virginia has made enough progress recovering from a catastrophic flood almost three years ago and whether the state has made proper use of federal flood dollars.
Two state senators are asking what’s become of a Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding that was set up to address those issues.
Senators Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, composed a letter asking for resumption of the flood committee while ticking off several issues that still need attention.
They question the pace of flood relief under West Virginia Rise, whether state officials do enough to monitor how federal flood grant money is used and progress on rebuilding schools that were destroyed
“Our lack of meetings has allowed recovery to languish,” the two senators wrote. “We need to keep our finger on the pulse and hold folks accountable.”
The flood committee hasn’t met since December. Just before that, its meetings were sporadic.
Some of the members of the committee were defeated in elections. The Senate’s chairman was Ed Gaunch, who was defeated last year. The House’s first chairman was Delegate Roger Hanshaw, who gave up the position after being elected Speaker. He was replaced by Delegate George Ambler, who ran for Senate and was defeated by Baldwin.
Baldwin and Jeffries say it’s time to re-commit.
“We want monthly meetings now,” Jeffries said. “I hope they follow through with it this time based on what has happened with it recently based on mishandling the money and other issues we’re seeing. We’ve both got questions and we want some answers.”
The most recent questions about West Virginia’s flood recovery and its use of federal relief grants arose late last week in a report by the state Auditor.
The audit released Friday concluded that Richwood failed to properly use up to $3.1 million in federal disaster money. Richwood was among the hardest-hit communities during the catastrophic flood of 2016.
In their letter, Baldwin and Jeffries contend lawmakers need a consistent effort to oversee West Virginia’s flood relief efforts.
The letter is addressed to Senator Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, who was recently named the new co-chairman of the committee on the Senate side.
“It’s my job to try to expedite this effectiveness of this committee,” Swope said in a Tuesday telephone interview with MetroNews, adding that the committee would meet again during legislative interim meetings in April.
Helping Swope was one of the aims of the letter, Baldwin said.
“Knowing that we are finally on the road to having a flood committee once again, we drafted that letter to get him up to speed on some of the major issues that are ongoing in flood recovery,” he said.
Jeffries was already looking ahead.
“There’s going to be some questions asked,” he said. “It’ll probably ruffle some feathers.”
The letter from Jeffries and Baldwin raises a variety of questions.
RISE back on ‘slow spender’ list
They continue to wonder about RISE, the flood relief agency that was criticized last year for its lack of progress. The senators note that nearly a year after the National Guard took over the program, number of active cases has gone from 435 to 421, “a minimal change in such a long period of time.”
Although the senators don’t specifically mention it, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has placed West Virginia back on a “slow spender” list for the pace of using federal grant money for flood relief.
Of the $149,875,000 that West Virginia had available, the state still has $136,601,297 left.
The most recent update on RISE by General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard indicates that 47 housing cases have been completed.
That update actually listed the total number of outstanding cases as higher than Jeffries and Baldwin had it.
Hoyer said the number continues to rise, “bringing the total to 476 as new cases continue to come in and previously inactive cases are brought back to active status.”
He said 245 cases require total reconstruction, 105 cases require some form of rehabilitation actions, and 114 cases require new mobile home replacement, while 12 cases are awaiting initial project type.
The senators question the status of the State Resiliency Office, which was created two years ago by the Legislature to be a hub of flood recovery efforts. The State Resiliency Office also came under question during the issues with RISE.
“They only recently hired their first employee and have yet to have a public meeting,” Baldwin and Jeffries wrote.
Emergency management oversight questions
The two senators also wonder about the oversight by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
In November, a state legislative audit revealed that West Virginia had been under heightened oversight by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for several years because the state did not have proper safeguards in place as relief money is passed along to local governments.
“The federal action is the result of several years of DHSEM’s inability to comply with grant requirements and failure to remedy identified issues,” wrote the state Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division in a separate audit last year.
State agency leaders described working toward improvement, but there has not yet been followup by lawmakers.
“Many of our communities continue to languish with grant programs that aren’t showing any results,” the senators wrote.
The state Auditor also raised questions about state oversight in his fraud unit’s year-long probe of Richwood’s finances.
“If you were to go to any one of these small towns that were affected in a very massive way in the 2016 floods, I doubt that any of them would say that our state disaster recovery team had a level of preparedness that was appropriate,” state Auditor J.B. McCuskey said this week on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Lagging school reconstruction
And the senators also question the progress on rebuilding Herbert Hoover High and Clendenin Elementary. “Construction hasn’t even begun yet. Squabbles between state officials and state government are ongoing.”
Toward the end of the regular legislative session, Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, expressed frustration at FEMA for delays.
“We’re two-and-a-half years after the flood and nothing’s been done to replace those schools,” Palumbo said in a floor speech.
Earlier this week, the Kanawha school board approved a resolution to acquire the land for the new high school. Last month, the board approved acquiring the land for the elementary school.
School reconstruction also hasn’t yet begun in Nicholas County, where community disagreements have reached the state level over the past couple of years.
Jeffries said addressing these issues is overdue.
“I really do wish we would have done those flood committee meetings monthly,” he said.