CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Last week, state officials canceled a proposal for a $5 million improvement project for the state Emergency Operations Center.
The money was to have come from federal Hazard Mitigation Grant funding, where $21 million in housing requests remain on an “oversubscribed” list.
Legislators of both parties have been emphasizing a desire to prioritize housing needs from the devastating 2016 floods.
A meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding was last Tuesday.
The letter withdrawing the Emergency Operations Center project was dated last Wednesday, although employees of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said the withdrawal process started months earlier.
“I’m a little puzzled by it,” said Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, co-chairman of the flood committee. “I would hope that they would fill us in on this if that was a decision.”
MetroNews obtained the withdrawal letter and the original project application as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
MetroNews ran paperwork for the project past Jeffries today. It was the first he had heard of it.
Emergency Services Director Michael Todorovich very briefly referenced the project during that meeting, using the past tense to describe it.
The 60-page application for the Emergency Operations Center project is dated March 12, 2018. It is signed by then-Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, who was bumped down months later and then retired this spring.
It describes the state Emergency Operations Center, at the time, operating out of the basement of the state Capitol.
That was an area that could have been subject to flooding from the Kanawha River. It also had space limitations, along with problems with mold and heating and cooling.
The application proposed a “hardening” of existing structure at the West Virginia National Guard property in Charleston.
That would have included reinforcing the roof of the new location, hardening walls, upgrading and retrofitting windows to protect against winds, improving fire resistance and making sure doors would be water tight.
There would have been a shelter to house emergency responders when necessary.
“Upon completion, the new EOC will be capable of withstanding the forces of nature, man-made events and will also become a shelter for first responders should such a situation arise,” the application stated.
At the time, the application stated, “failure to implement the project could leave the State vulnerable to catastrophic disaster without response.”
Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer described the project last fall in front of Gov. Jim Justice.
Last October, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management went ahead and moved out of the Capitol basement and up to the National Guard grounds.
Because the rationale of the application was based on the basement headquarters being substandard, the move undercut that use of the Hazard Mitigation Grant funding.
The change could also free up $5 million in federal grant funding for something else.
“As we progressed through the system, the factors necessary to modify the facility did not preclude the need to provide the funding for Mitigation for those in need,” stated Lora Lipscomb, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“Therefore a decision was made to remove the EOC from consideration.”
Lipscomb was responding to MetroNews questions about the project. She said the bottom line is, the withdrawal from the EOC project may free up money.
The switch come as lawmakers are taking a closer look at whether the state has appropriate priorities for Hazard Mitigation Grant funding.
That was a major topic at last week’s flood meeting.
Todorovich spent some time going over the broad picture of Hazard Mitigation Grant funding — noting that even though millions of dollars are available, not all applications can be funded.
Hazard Mitigation money flows through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That is different from controversies surrounding RISE, which is funded through U.S. Housing and Urban Development. That money is Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief.
In 2016, state officials suggested flooded homeowners apply for Hazard Mitigation Grants. But a year later, once RISE money became available for long-term housing, the Hazard Mitigation money priority shifted to infrastructure.
State leaders apparently decided on the priority shift at a November, 2017, meeting. But both federal and state officials have said they are unaware of any written documentation.
West Virginia has $69 million available from the Hazard Mitigation Grant funding connected to the 2016 flood, including a state match.
That’s an enormous amount compared to what the state normally has available after a disaster, but this was a catastrophic event.
Even at that amount, the state has an additional $21 million in requests that didn’t make the first cut.
Those projects — all housing — are on an “oversubscribed list” that could move up if other projects aren’t approved.
West Virginia has asked for the most money — $41,146,017 — to go toward infrastructure needs that might include water projects or generators.
Only $9 million in housing requests made the first cut. Those might include acquisition, demolition, elevation or reconstruction under better building standards.
Lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with those priorities and established a subcommittee to take another look.
“I’m really frustrated that things like generators were placed in priority over people’s homes,” said Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Kanawha.
“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.”
Upon learning today that the Emergency Operations Center request had ever existed in the first place, Jeffries said the upside is a chance to shuffle some of the proposals.
“That’ll help quite a few people,” he said.
But even as chairman of the committee, he’s frustrated by spending too much effort guessing how West Virginia makes its decisions about what to fund with federal dollars.
“It’s not making sense to me of why money is available, why money is not available,” he said. “We need some explanations.”