We are approaching the three-year anniversary (June 23) of the devastating flood that killed 23 people and caused an estimated $300 million in damage to homes, businesses, roads and bridges. However, the grim milestone may mark only the halfway point of the flood recovery in West Virginia.
West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General James Hoyer, who Governor Jim Justice put in charge of the RISE program last year, said on Talkline Tuesday that states have six years to spend down federal dollars available through Housing and Urban Development for flood recovery.
“It will take the entire six-year period to execute all the money that comes out of this program,” said Hoyer. He added, “I still believe we have another two years of construction work going forward just on the housing piece alone.”
That is disappointing news for the people who make up the estimated 500 individual flood recovery cases that are still pending. MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny visited several flood victims in Greenbrier County last week. He found those still waiting for new or improved housing have just about given up hope.
“It’s like some of us out here have been forgotten about,” said Rupert resident Lawanna Vest, who lost two mobile homes in the flood.
General Hoyer assures us no one has been forgotten. In fact, when he took over RISE they reviewed all the flood claims and added another 170 cases. However, the federal rules, regulations and documentation necessary prior to spending any grant money are overwhelming.
The environmental review for each flood county is 200 pages and the review for an individual property is 60 pages. A 94-page long environmental review must be correctly completed for a temporary home. The state must ensure that flood victims are not receiving overlapping benefits. Hoyer pointed us to a two-inch think binder which represented one individual case file.
Additionally, the Justice administration decided not to use a consultant to navigate the bureaucracy. Instead, the state is trying to build a framework to follow when there are disasters in the future. “So, we’re building the airplane while we fly,” he said.
Meanwhile, HUD is making another $106 million available to the state. That will be added to the initial grant of $150 million. The state still had $136 million of that first allocation as of the end of March.
The money is there, and Hoyer says the state is moving with “deliberate speed” to provide long-term flood relief. Clearly that’s not fast enough for folks who have already waited three years, but it is evident that this is a staggering challenge. The paperwork alone is enough to crush even the most dedicated public servant.
There is no way to sugar coat this. It’s a grind for those working on restoring flood victims lives and a painfully long wait for those who lost their homes three years ago. The suffering and fallout from the 2016 flood lingers.