CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia lawmakers want to take a closer look at state priorities for federal grants that could help victims of the catastrophic 2016 flood get their homes out of harm’s way.
Legislators have been asking about the state’s priorities for Hazard Mitigation Grants, which are federal funds through FEMA meant to help avoid damage from future disasters.
State officials had a series of forums around the state in 2016 that led flood victims to apply for grants that could lead to buyouts, having homes elevated or having homes flood-proofed.
But a year later, after state officials got millions of dollars of additional money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, state leaders decided that funding source would be a better way to address housing needs.
The second money source came to be called RISE, and it has had well-documented challenges.
So, much of the money available from Hazard Mitigation Grants was shifted toward infrastructure needs such as community water systems or generators.
“I think the perception has been that families that signed up for this Hazard Mitigation money, they were going to get their homes torn down, bought out or reconstructed,” said Senator Glenn Jeffries, D-Kanawha.
“And that money has not been appropriated for that.”
Jeffries proposed a subcommittee of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding to examine priorities under Hazard Mitigation Grant funding.
The subcommittee was approved last week. It includes Jeffries, Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Webster, and Delegate Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier.
That group may recommend a priority shift.
“The executive branch has to make that final decision whether that happens or not, but that’s the reason for our subcommittee is to present that to him,” Senator Jeffries said.
Last month, officials with West Virginia’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management provided a list of Hazard Mitigation Grant projects.
Even though the grant is designated because of the 2016 flood, what it funds may be from anywhere in the state, not just the flood zone.
As officials described last week to legislators, West Virginia had $69.6 million in grant funds available, including a state match.
Of that, the vast majority of the money is aimed at infrastructure projects.
Infrastructure may include projects such as water system improvements or flood control projects. A lot of communities requested backup generators.
There’s another $21 million in projects considered “oversubscribed.” That’s basically the pool of projects on a waiting list.
All of those are labeled “property.”
Projects involving property might include acquisition, demolition, elevation or reconstruction under better building standards.
So that means a lot of flooded homeowners are waiting for money that might or might not ever come.
“What we’re going to try to do now is to take what money was allocated for infrastructure projects, move it down to the oversubscribed list and get those houses taken out of there and get those people taken care of,” Senator Jeffries said.
At a meeting of the legislative flood committee last week, state leaders acknowledged people’s need for housing but said the infrastructure projects may improve entire communities.
“It’s a difficult balancing act when you have a limited amount of money and you’re trying to take care of the maximum amount of people but you have individual families,” said Adjutant General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard.
He said generators may help hospitals or other local emergency services efforts.
“One of things looking for in particular is just demand for generators alone,” Hoyer said.
Emergency Management Director Mike Todorovich described another infrastructure need for water facilities.
“The biggest thing it covers is the water works,” Todorovich said. “If we can reach out and help 500 families for $100,000 versus one house, somebody at a higher level than me has to make those kinds of decisions.”
Later in that meeting, Senator Jeffries asked for some alternatives within the next month.
“My concern is, a number of these families have already moved,” he said. “They have already purchased another property. There’s some of them that probably have a couple of mortgage payments. I think we need to do something to make these people whole.”
“Could you come back in 30 days and re-present a plan to us that may be able to get those people out of those oversubscribed dollars?”
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, said she hopes the state can help more families be compensated for housing that was destroyed.
“I’m really frustrated that things like generators were placed in priority over people’s homes,” Kessinger said.
“I understand the importance of building infrastructure in southern West Virginia in particular but we’re talking about people who do not have a place to live. And they should be our priority.”
She also expressed frustration that no clear answers could be given about how the priorities were decided in the first place.
Kessinger said West Virginia’s recovery effort needs to keep people at the forefront.
“When we asked for examples and the first example you give us is we have to purchase generators and you’re telling me 100 percent of the projects on the oversubscription list are homes of people it’s a little discouraging,” she said, “especially when there are people I’m talking to weekly, if not more frequently than that, who are still waiting for a home.”