CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Delegate Dean Jeffries, co-chairman of the Legislature’s flood relief oversight committee, says disaster victims who believed they were promised government help are still waiting.
“The big thing we’re finding, a lot of these people – there’s a misunderstanding that they would be taken care of,” said Jeffries, R-Kanawha.
“These people signed agreements just shortly after the flood that their house would be appraised, value would be set, their house would be torn down and they would be reimbursed. In many of these situations, these houses have been torn down but these people have not seen one penny of reimbursement yet.”
Jeffries described increasing concern over how West Virginia has allocated relief dollars for Hazard Mitigation Grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He made reference to documents revealed this week by MetroNews, detailing conversations among state officials who concluded that infrastructure should be a top priority for disaster relief.
“It seems to be, there has been a shift or a reallocation or a desire to reallocate these funds towards infrastructure rather than housing,” Jeffries said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I see the need for improvements to our infrastructure, but this money was allocated up front and the initial plan was for it to be spent on housing.”
Jeffries spoke Tuesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” A subcommittee of the lawmakers examining flood response meets Wednesday. That group wants to alter West Virginia’s disaster relief priorities and make sure homeowners come first.
“So hopefully the subcommittee we’re having tomorrow, hopefully we can bring things back into line and focus on the housing for these individuals, rather than infrastructure,” Jeffries said.
Hazard mitigation money is meant to avert damage from future disasters. One of its potential uses is for housing — buyouts, elevation of the home or flood-proofing.
West Virginia has $67 million available in Hazard Mitigation Grant funds associated with the catastrophic 2016 flood.
Documents recently revealed by MetroNews show that in late 2017, West Virginia officials chose to make infrastructure needs — rather than housing — the top priority for the money.
Prior to the Nov. 7, 2017, meeting, housing had been the top intended priority as indicated by how money had been allocated.
The meeting of state and federal officials was meant to settle on an overarching strategy for using millions of available federal dollars for flood relief.
Besides the mitigation money already on hand, West Virginia had just gotten $149 million in Community Development Block Grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That money became known as RISE.
West Virginia also had received significant housing help already from volunteer and religious groups.
“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.
The report indicates the Department of Commerce would work with HUD to determine if priorities could be shifted for RISE. But officials cautioned that the state would have to demonstrate housing needs had been met — “something not easily done.”
HUD confirmed this month that West Virginia has not made an official request to alter its priorities. But HUD still labels West Virginia a “slow spender,” a designation that reflects whether the state is on pace to close out the grant.
Fifty houses have been completed out of 479 cases, according to the most recent RISE update.
With the other Hazard Mitigation Grant money, the report from 2017 indicates state officials agreed the priorities would be shuffled.
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.”
In a response last month to MetroNews questions about priorities, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management referenced that meeting and said the priorities were changed through a verbal directive.
“There was a verbal directive from leadership that informed the process of ranking applications,” stated agency spokeswoman Lora Lipscomb.
Now, $21 million in housing requests wound up on a Hazard Mitigation “oversubscribed” list, where they might receive funding if other requests such as for water projects and generators fell by the wayside.
“From looking at the conversations in the minutes in these meetings that were held, I think maybe the people involved jumped the gun,” Jeffries said.
“They felt that VOAD, RISE, maybe all these other programs were going to take care of housing needs, that there would be no unmet needs and that this money could be redirected for infrastructure.”
He concluded: “As we’re seeing, that’s not the case. We still have hundreds of people that are in need.”
Jeffries sells insurance in Elkview, where many community members were affected by the devastating 2016 flood. He said just this past week he encountered two people living in campers with no water.
“They just want help. We’re going on three years since the flood. It’s difficult. These are people in my community. These are people we live with. They’re customers. They’re friends. It’s not just two people. This is a large problem. It’s something that I do take to heart,” he said.
“It’s something I promised them. I put every bit of energy I have free into this to get answers and to get remedies for this.”