CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In 2016, Connie Sloan was flooded out of her Elkview home. Water was rising 10 feet high. She escaped in a neighbor’s fishing boat with her two dogs, Mingo and Babe. The house, drenched and moldy, was later knocked down.
Almost three years later, 80-year-old Sloan is still waiting for word on federal funds that could compensate her loss.
She has spent much of that time contemplating a mystery.
“My basic question is, why have they moved monies out of this FEMA mitigation that was supposed to be for houses and moved them over to other things?” Sloan said this week.
“How do you take funds to provide homes for people – and whose houses have now been torn down – and decide we’re going to buy a bunch of generators?”
That’s a question that West Virginia legislators have focused on in recent weeks, too.
During a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding at the end of April, lawmakers asked repeated questions about Hazard Mitigation Grant funds and how West Virginia wound up emphasizing infrastructure projects over housing.
“I’m a little frustrated that when I asked who was deciding which projects were the priority, nobody could tell me who was deciding the priorities over the past three years,” Delegate Kayla Kessenger, R-Fayette, said after that meeting.
Hazard Mitigation Grants are meant to help communities avert damage from future disasters. There are various ways the grants may be used. Following the devastating 2016 flood, state officials had a series of forums to talk with residents about housing.
Flood victims applied for grants that could lead to buyouts, having homes elevated or having homes flood-proofed.
Most are still waiting.
This is different from the controversy about RISE West Virginia, although the two are related as sources of millions of dollars that could help the state heal.
RISE has money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, represented by Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief. That money remains dedicated to housing, but progress has been slow and frustrating.
At the end of this past week, the number of housing cases in RISE numbered 479. Fifty homes are considered complete.
From late 2016 through much of 2017, West Virginia had emphasized Hazard Mitigation Grants to help flood victims with their housing. Then the millions of dollars became available for RISE, and the priorities changed.
That’s been described, but not with enough detail for West Virginia flood victims or the legislators who represent them.
The decision to change priorities, it turns out, took place during a two-hour meeting in a state Capitol conference room in 2017.
Reports of no written record
That meeting has been described in general terms, most notably in a Federal Emergency Management Agency newsletter, Forward Recovery.
“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.
Over the past few weeks, MetroNews has asked both FEMA and West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for more details, including written documentation from the meeting.
Responding to MetroNews questions early last month, Emergency Management spokeswoman Laura Lipscomb briefly described the priority switch and the reasons behind it.
But, she wrote, “There is no documentation of this priority shift. There was a verbal directive from leadership that informed the process of ranking applications.”
The same question to FEMA yielded no documentation.
“We concur with the state that there was no official documentation of priorities,” a FEMA spokesman said in an email May 6. We did, and do, speak with our state counterparts daily on projects, priorities, roles and responsibilities.”
Infrastructure and housing
Priorities have had a practical effect on West Virginia flood relief.
Last month, officials with West Virginia’s Division 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 mitigation 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.
West Virginia lawmakers of both parties have been curious about how the priorities took shape.
“Yes, we are curious,” said Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. “Is that what happened? Was there actually a shift? Was it reprioritized? We want to dig into that.”
Jeffries described constituents still struggling with housing issues. The day he spoke, he had just learned of two people living in campers with no water.
“People shouldn’t be living like this three years after the flood,” he said on the telephone.
“People come first. Infrastructure is important. I’m not going to say it’s not. But if people have to up and leave here, there goes our tax base.”
He would like better answers.
“If that was a decision,” he said, “somebody should be able to answer for that.”
Similar responses came from other lawmakers.
“I’ve had folks tell me the governor made the decision. I’ve had people tell me DHSEM made that decision. But I don’t know any of that conclusively,” said Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “I’ve been asking about that for about two years now.”
He said West Virginia should focus on making sure housing needs are met.
“These folks who are on the over subscription list, they feel like they were promised that their needs would be taken care of and that they would be prioritized,” Baldwin said.
“Housing is priority number one. You’ve got to have a place to lie your head each night.”
Senator Glenn Jeffries, D-Kanawha, agreed about the continued housing problems.
“They should be priority. We need to take care of our people first, take care of our families,” he said. “Then what is left we gear it toward infrastructure projects.”
During last week’s Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, Kessinger tried several ways to ask how priorities were set.
She expressed frustration after the meeting that she had not gotten clear answers.
Kessinger: “I guess my question is, why are we placing homes on the oversubscribed list? And you mentioned earlier infrastructure includes generators and things like that.
“So, I guess my question would be a question of priority. I feel like of the people on this committee, our priority has been getting people in homes. So why are we placing those projects on the oversubscribed list and we’re already budgeting for those projects and things like that?”
Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer made reference to a formula used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to weigh projects and also to earlier comments by Senator Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, describing the importance of infrastructure projects.
Hoyer: “Yes, maam, and again that was part of the – there’s two things; there’s the formula but there’s also prioritization of understanding that we’ve got to take care of people in homes. But going back to the Senator from Nicholas’s point, if we don’t spend some money on infrastructure and we don’t keep these water systems and sewer systems functional then we’ll have several hundred or a couple thousand people that we’re not taking care of, so it’s a balancing act of that piece.
“And what we’re doing is going to go back and dissect how that was prioritized before and what we think the process should be going forward.
“And again ma’am, we have some water systems that if we don’t put some money towards them and they fail we’re going to have several thousand people.”
Kessinger: “I’m just wondering who makes those decisions. Like, why are purchasing generators for some areas priority over getting people in a home? I understand the wastewater management and things like that, but that’s sort of my question.”
Hoyer referred to a subcommittee that lawmakers had just established to examine re-shuffling Hazard Mitigation projects.
Hoyer: “That’s what we’ll come back to. Working with the subcommittee, we’ll come back and try to walk you through all that and a path going forward.”
Kessinger: “And if we do see that the priorities should have been homes over generators, is there a way to modify that?”
At that point, state Emergency Management Director Mike Todorovich spoke up, describing his vision of a committee that would include officials in the executive branch, as well as legislators and experts from West Virginia colleges.
“So we will never be in this situation again without having total transparency,” Todorovich said.
Kessinger: “Sure, so who decides the priorities right now?”
Hoyer: “Ma’am, that’s what we’ve got to go back and dissect from what was done before and who had the responsibility.”
Kessinger: “So we don’t know who decided what?”
Hoyer: “I believe what was occurring was they were taking the FEMA formula and sending it forward based on that formula that was used to set the prioritization. But we owe you the answer to that.”
Kessinger: “Yeah, so you don’t know who *they* are?”
Hoyer: “It would have been the former director of the mitigation program.”
MetroNews reached out to Hoyer on Friday to clarify more about how priorities were set.
Last June, when controversy broke out over how the state Department of Commerce was administering RISE, Governor Justice placed Hoyer in charge of long-term relief.
Hoyer has been providing updates, mostly on RISE, to both legislators and the public.
On the telephone Friday, Hoyer was asked specifically about the Nov. 7, 2017, meeting that had been characterized as one to set priorities.
He said that meeting was supported by FEMA, which brought in a facilitator. But he said the focus was how to best use the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Relief, through HUD.
Hoyer said “2017 was a unique circumstance for the state of West Virginia both in magnitude of devastation and in the funding that was going to come in.”
He said the question at that meeting became, “How are we going to prioritize CDBG-DR money, which ended up being housing, infrastructure and economic development.”
Hoyer said one of the issues the state has needed to focus on is getting stronger for the future.
“The guidance given to me was, let’s don’t just fix what we have issues with, give us some things going forward that create the appropriate path and structure,” he said.
Hoyer spent much of his time on the telephone emphasizing the legislative subcommittee that has been set up to work on priorities for disaster grant money.
He said he is “going to work with the subcommittee to determine how we got to that prioritization piece and what are the best paths forward to address it.”
Minutes, descriptions, documentation
A detailed description of what happened was among dozens of documents MetroNews received through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state Department of Commerce.
The request, prompted by the RISE controversy, had been for public records relating to the work of the State Resiliency Office.
The request was fulfilled last July, but the recent questions about disaster relief led to a closer look at the documents.
Just as Hoyer described in the telephone conversation with MetroNews, the report states the session that day was led by FEMA and a facilitator in the Governor’s Cabinet and Conference Room.
Governor Justice convened the meeting.
“The governor discussed the promising future of West Virginia with new development and job opportunities,” the report notes. That’s the last time Justice is mentioned.
A photo accompanying the Forward Recovery 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 now-retired Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato.
The invitees listed in the report also include Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy, Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch and DNR Secretary Stephen McDaniel.
West Virginia’s congressional delegation was also invited.
There is no indication that any state legislators representing the communities that were flooded were asked to attend.
From 9 to 11 a.m., state leaders were to discuss and agree to state recovery priorities.
When the meeting began, housing was the top priority, as reflected by the way funding was allocated at the time. Infrastructure was second and economic development was third.
That would soon change.
The entire event was inspired by how much money West Virginia stood to draw down from the federal government for disaster relief.
The disaster marked the first time West Virginia received a CDBG-DR allocation, $149 million, as the records note. And it was also the largest amount of HMGP funds ever received, $69 million.
“Due to the complexity of the situation, the meeting was convened to ensure that there was a holistic strategy for the use of these recovery funds.”
Needs were also immense, although there was disagreement about the remaining level.
At that point, more than $100 million had been dedicated to housing, and volunteer groups had already rebuilt or rehabbed 1,000 homes.
The volunteer groups had done so well, state officials in late 2017 questioned how much housing need was left.
“Participants of the session questioned whether there was $100 million left in unmet housing needs, or if some of the funding should be reallocated to support infrastructure and economic development,” the report noted.
Starting at 9:54 a.m., led by the facilitator, the group settled on three priorities, in no particular order: housing, infrastructure and economic development.
The facilitator then asked the group if there could be consensus on ranking the three priorities.
According to the report: “Conversation was started by General Hoyer who indicated he did not feel that housing was any longer the top priority.
“He indicated that through the State VOAD and other faith-based groups, at least half of the 2,000 homes damaged in the June 2016 flood had been repaired/rebuilt. Therefore housing was no longer a top priority.”
Some of the others in the room agreed, the report states.
Further discussion “confirmed that infrastructure would be the top priority.”
The report then describes additional talk of how that might apply to the funds under Housing and Urban Development. Experts there noted that the state would have to demonstrate that housing needs had been met — “something that was not easily done.”
That focus on the grants through HUD was similar to Hoyer described in the telephone conversation with MetroNews.
The group that gathered that day agreed that the Department of Commerce should work with HUD to determine what would be required.
Last week, HUD confirmed to MetroNews that West Virginia has not made a request to that agency to focus on infrastructure. That would require an amendment to an Action Plan, essentially a contract between the state and HUD.
But gathered in a conference room in late 2017, state officials were moving toward an emphasis on infrastructure.
“Based on this conversation, General Hoyer suggested that infrastructure should be the top priority,” the report states. “”The group agreed.”
So, by 11:12 a.m., the group had agreed on these priorities, in order:
- Economic Development
At that point, the facilitator “indicated that time had run out for this meeting.”
Although much of the meeting had focused on the newly-available money from HUD, the gathering was meant to establish a holistic approach. The report reflects changes to West Virginia’s approach across its available grant resources.
The five major topics include this item: “Reprioritization of Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Applications.”
The specific section covering that topic states, “As a result of these meetings and the session, the WV DHSEM is now looking at the reprioritization of grant applications.”
The first listed step in the process was this:
“WV DHSEM will review their submitted applications and prioritize infrastructure projects before housing.”
Would like to be a priority
Connie Sloan is on the outside looking in.
She is represented as FEMA Project Number 106 as an Acquisition/Demolition.
According to an update from state officials this week, Sloans’ application is “oversubscribed,” but “has been submitted to FEMA for review in case other HMGP funding becomes available.”
Sloan says there is little satisfaction in that.
Asked whether she had heard anything about her status, she laughed.
“Just sitting here waiting. And then you start looking at where this money has gone to. It’s mind boggling,” she said.
“It’s like the old carnival game where you take a peanut, put it under a cup and move it all around with two other cups and make people figure out where the peanut is.”
She has moved to a new house in Elkview, but “I’m paying 200-some dollars a month on a piece of property that is vacant.”
The mortgage company also charges her a dollar a year for flood insurance and homeowners insurance for the property where her house was flooded and knocked down. At age 80, she still works a part-time job to meet the expenses.
Right after the flood, she recalled, officials told her a buyout might be her best option.
“It was the very first thing they told me. Nobody said you’re going to be sitting here until whenever,” she said. “I think they’re just waiting on us to die so they can do whatever.”