CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After the devastating flood of 2016, there were public forums around West Virginia advising flood victims about a valuable resource, federal Hazard Mitigation Grant money
State officials told homeowners the process is competitive and they should apply but act as if they’re moving on with life with no guarantee of help.
“We ask that you go on with your life as if you are not in a project,” officials told the crowds.
Turns out, that was probably good advice.
Almost three years after the flood destroyed hundreds of West Virginia homes, officials in hard-hit Greenbrier County say only six properties out of 41 applicants have been approved for funding through Hazard Mitigation Grants.
The rest are still waiting for some word of help. Their requests are either under review or on a waiting list they might never get off.
These are people who had homes in the floodway and cannot rebuild. They lost their homes and the property inside. Some are still living with family and some are renting.
“Maybe because they didn’t have a house and they lost everything, they obviously are the ones calling every single week asking what’s the status, what’s the status, what’s the status,” said Paula Brown, deputy director for the Greenbrier County Office of Emergency Services.
When officials visited flooded communities in a series of 2016 events meant to describe the Hazard Mitigation Grant as an option, most who attended were flooded homeowners and housing was the main subject.
“Those individuals were the hardest hit and had nowhere to turn. They were told they were to be the priority,” Brown said.
Instead, Brown believes, much of West Virginia’s emphasis through those available funds has been on infrastructure rather than on housing.
“I don’t know when the priorities shifted,” she said.
More flood relief problems
Much of West Virginia’s relief effort following the catastrophic flood of 2016 has come under scrutiny.
The highest-profile controversy, last year, focused on West Virginia RISE, which was to handle $150 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That program was again placed on HUD’s “slow spender” list for the pace of using federal grant money for flood relief.
Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer, who leads the state’s flood relief effort, indicated 49 housing cases have been completed. The number of open cases stands at 476.
RISE is different from the Hazard Mitigation Grant money, which flows from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That one provides grants to states and local governments for projects intended to lessen the impact of natural hazards through safer building practices. Individual homeowners and businesses may not apply directly to the program; but a community may apply on their behalf.
Basically, the grant money is meant to get houses and other properties out of the floodway. Residents hope grant money will allow them to move somewhere else.
The trouble is, neither financial source of millions of federal dollars has led to swift or steady recovery by flooded West Virginia homeowners.
Most progress has come through volunteer or faith-based organizations.
“Thank God the faith-based groups and VOAD groups came in and provided the support they did,” Brown said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be recovered to where we are today.”
The priority shift
State officials confirmed this week that a priority shift occurred two years ago for Hazard Mitigation Grants, and the reason actually relates to RISE.
When that $150 million to help people with long-term housing was awarded by Housing and Urban Development, state officials decided the Hazard Mitigation Grant money through FEMA should be used some other way.
“In November 2017, leaders met to discuss this new funding stream and discovered areas of overlap in the HUD and HMPG funding,” state Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokeswoman Lora Lipscomb stated in response to MetroNews questions.
“Since HUD would cover many of the same individual property issues as HMPG, the leaders decided to focus HMPG on infrastructure projects. The infrastructure projects would serve many more citizens and help entire towns and counties become more resilient.”
That change in priorities was more than a year after all the public forums around the state described housing options under the Hazard Mitigation Grant.
There is no documentation of that priority shift, Lipscomb said, just a verbal directive from leadership.
But there was coverage in A Federal Emergency Management Agency newsletter, Forward Recovery.
The internal publication described representatives from HUD, FEMA and the Justice administration gathering on Nov. 7, 2017, for a meeting of the minds.
“Due to the complexity of the situation, the meeting was convened to ensure that there was a holistic strategy for the use of these funds,” FEMA Region III officials wrote in the newsletter.
A photo accompanying the article shows FEMA Region III Administrator MaryAnn Tierney, along with Governor Justice, chief of staff Mike Hall, General Hoyer, then-Transportation Secretary Tom Smith and recently-retired Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato.
Participants raised concerns that the federal agencies had allocated more money toward housing recovery than was really needed.
The disaster marked the first time that West Virginia received a Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant –Disaster Recovery allocation. And it was the largest amount of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds ever received by the state.
Those who gathered talked about reallocating some of the money, possibly toward infrastructure needs.
“With the influx of disaster recovery funds, recovery programs have the potential to duplicate efforts and even inhibit the recovery process,” FEMA wrote in its newsletter.
“Participants raised concerns that CDBG-DR and HMGP were allocating more funding toward housing recovery beyond what is needed. Participants also discussed other significant unmet needs in addition to housing.
As a result, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management decided to re-prioritize grant applications with a focus on infrastructure, FEMA wrote.
“Also, the state Department of Commerce agreed to work with HUD to determine the steps and requirements to ultimately reallocate housing funds once the unmet needs have been fully met.”
To set priorities, Emergency Management used the directive to focus on infrastructure along with a cost-benefit analysis to rank each application from recovering West Virginia communities.
Applications that did not fall within the allotted funding were added to an “oversubscribed list” The applications for all projects, including oversubscribed, were submitted to FEMA.
“Due to the magnitude of the 2016 flooding, there was no way the State and FEMA could fund all applications for HMGP,” Lipscomb stated.
Brown’s concerns got attention when she provided an update late last month to Greenbrier County Commissioners, resulting in coverage from the Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley. The resulting headline was “Flood relief program fails Greenbrier County families.”
When MetroNews reached out to FEMA for comment about the concerns, the federal agency said West Virginia is responsible for its priorities.
“The article you referenced is correct in stating ‘Although funding is mostly federal, the state is responsible for assigning to the applications received,'” a FEMA spokesman responded. “Suggest you reach out to them.”
Officials with West Virginia’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management provided a list of Hazard Mitigation Grant projects.
Projects involving property might include acquisition, demolition, elevation or reconstruction under better building standards. Infrastructure may include projects such as water system improvements or flood control projects. A lot of communities requested backup generators.
Overall, there are 43 property acquisitions listed, compared to 32 infrastructure projects.
Not all projects have received funding approval yet. Of those still waiting for approval, 27 are property acquisitions and 11 are infrastructure.
The property acquisitions involve less money than the infrastructure projects.
The infrastructure projects add up to more than $45 million,while the property acquisitions almost $19 million.
“It’s going to be very easy for the infrastructure projects to eat up all these funds,” Brown said.
There’s a long list of “oversubscribed” items on the list, too. They are beyond the funding available from the 2016 disaster declaration but are submitted in case more money is available. That could happen if something else doesn’t get approval.
Of the 28 projects that are “oversubscribed,” all are property acquisitions.
So that means a lot of flooded homeowners are waiting for money that might or might not ever come.
“We don’t know whether these will ever be funded as opposed to just kind of when,” Brown said.
Kanawha waits, too
In Kanawha County, Commissioner Kent Carper has been pleased by state efforts since relief was consolidated under Hoyer. Carper said communication is better.
“The individual now in charge of this program has done everything humanly possible to address this situation,” Carper said.
In a telephone interview, Carper did not have particular information about Hazard Mitigation Grants.
Kanawha is in line for seven property acquisitions and five more property reconstruction projects. Clendenin, a municipality in Kanawha County, is in line for elevation of two properties, reconstruction of six properties and acquisition of four.
The Town of Belle, also in Kanawha County, is on the list for a $433,000 water-sewer improvement. That’s the only Kanawha infrastructure project on the list.
Kanawha has 16 projects on the oversubscribe list.
Despite Carper’s approval of Hoyer’s performance over the past 11 months, he has longstanding concerns about the pace of flood relief.
“It has taken longer to get assistance to people in the Elk community than it did to the people of Puerto Rico,” Carper said.
Questions in the Senate
Two state senators have renewed questions about flood relief in West Virginia. Among the concerns listed by senators Glenn Jeffries and Stephen Baldwin is how West Virginia oversees grants from the federal government.
Baldwin, in a telephone interview this past week, said he would like to know more about how West Virginia decides priorities for Hazard Mitigation Grants.
“This is not new at all, but it seems to be reaching a boiling point,” said Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “It reached a boiling point last year and seems to be once again.”
Baldwin continued, “I think we are dealing with the consequence now of a prioritization that was misplaced a long time ago.
“In the immediate aftermath of the flood, housing should have been top priority. What is a homeowner and a county supposed to do with a dilapidated house that sits in the floodway that you can’t do anything else with?”
Jeffries, D-Kanawha, would also like some answers.
Of housing needs, Jeffries said, “it seems like that got put on the backburner, and infrastructure became the priority.
“Tell me what you are identifying as infrastructure. If you re doing infrastructure, I want to know what it is. I haven’t heard it. I haven’t seen it.”