CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Five million dollars in requested improvements to a West Virginia Emergency Operations Center was built on the premise that state emergency managers were working in moldy, flood-prone conditions in the Capitol basement.
The trouble is, the emergency managers started moving out of the basement in July, 2018, to the West Virginia National Guard headquarters in Charleston.
There, emergency responders use a Joint Operations Center that during periods of heightened readiness becomes the State Emergency Operations Center.
Despite the move out of the basement last year, the upgrade request remained.
The requested project would have improved an existing, 7,000-square foot drill hall at the National Guard to make it nearly impenetrable in instances of disaster or attack.
It’s unclear whether there was ever an update to the application first filed March 12, 2018. Documents obtained from FEMA show continued consideration of the basement situation clear through this past April even though emergency managers were long gone.
West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management finally withdrew the project request at the beginning of this month.
The $5 million project would have been funded out of $67 million in hazard mitigation money associated with the catastrophic 2016 flood. That’s federal money with a state match.
Mitigation money is meant to avert damage from future disasters.
That same pool of money has had $21 million in housing project requests — like buyouts or elevations — on an “oversubscribed” list. Roughly speaking, that’s the waiting list.
The mitigation money can also be used for a “safe room” like the EOC upgrade was supposed to be.
“That didn’t give a very good optic or appearance that it was being used out of that pot of money,” said Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding.
He agreed the basement at the Capitol wasn’t ideal for emergency managers.
“I do understand the basement at the Capitol was not the optimal location for the emergency operation center. I think we’re probably going to still have to look at where that will be housed, at what location it will need to be,” Jeffries said. “But the plan they had, the $5 million, the timing wasn’t right.”
The basement conditions were a key element of the proposal to FEMA.
“The current EOC is located in the (Special Flood Hazard Area) in the basement of the main Capitol building,” according to the application. “It is susceptible to flooding, human terror incidents and access impediments. It further is not hardened for any conditions including weather events and human caused accidents.
“Upon completion, the new EOC will be capable of withstanding the forces of nature, man made events and will also become a shelter for the first responders should such a situation arise. The hardening will be both interior and exterior and be self-sufficient in both communications and utility systems.”
“Taking no action would mean the citizens of West Virginia would still be at risk when catastrophic disaster struck.”
Even after emergency managers moved out of the basement and to the National Guard facility, that remained the rationale.
That’s reflected in communications by the consultant CDM Smith to FEMA obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by MetroNews.
A series of memos by CDM Smith focused on updates about the plan to renovate the National Guard drill hall, but maintained the basement justification.
Even in a memorandum with a receipt date of May 3, 2019 — two days after the project request was officially withdrawn — mentions the basement.
“The current state EOC is in the basement of the Capitol Complex Building One, approximately 3.5 miles from the proposed safe room site,” according to the memorandum.
“The subapplicant also indicates the current EOC is susceptible to terror incidents, access impediments and cannot support operations due to limitations in spacing.”
Rather than considering the current situation with an existing State Emergency Operations Center, the memorandums look to the past in the basement and the future in the renovated drill hall.
The updates from the consultant focus on issues such as protection from wind damage, how many people could be housed in the improved safe room and how much time it would take them to get there in an emergency.
MetroNews asked the Division of Homeland Security a series of questions, trying to clarify whether the move from the basement was ever made clear.
The responses were brief and focused on the goal of moving from the basement, rather than the fact that it had already happened.
MetroNews: Did CDM Smith receive any information to indicate the EOC had moved from the basement to the National Guard facility?
DHSEM: Information was provided via the application and verbal response by FEMA and DHSEM project officers.
MetroNews: Should the move from the basement have been communicated as part of subsequent communications regarding the EOC hardening?
DHSEM: The move from the basement was communicated as potential justification to building of the EOC at Coonskin.
Emails among state Emergency Management employees and FEMA also show continued focus on the basement conditions, with some recommended calculations for a cost-benefit analysis comparing the situation in the basement with what the protections would be like at the renovated drill hall.
Those were among documents obtained from the state agency through a separate Freedom of Information request.
The documents from West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management show the agency was aware some factors may affect the $5 million request.
A project status timeline lists as a major risk: “May be seen as a duplication of program.”
That document proposes a potential solution: “Review other potential funding sources.”
A separate project review lists a similar potential concern: “Since other programs exist to address construction for NG facilities, it may seen as a duplication of program and not approved.”
But, until it was cut off this month, the preparations for the project continued.
Last fall, as West Virginia emergency responders prepared for the whip of Hurricane Florence, Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer described the project in front of Gov. Jim Justice.
He was speaking at an Emergency Operations Center at the Guard facility that was being used for the first time by the National Guard and Emergency Management employees, plus other response agencies.
Hoyer’s comments looked to what was, at that point, a vision of the future.
“We’ve got a funding request that’s being finalized by FEMA right now. It’s about $5 million to take what used to be our drill hall floor for military activities out here and give us a facility probably about five times this size out there,” Hoyer said.
“Then we’ll be able to use this for additional assets to bring some more assets in.”