LEWISBURG, W.Va. — Under ideal conditions, West Virginians who need help with their long-term needs for recovery from the flood two years ago would receive it through RISE West Virginia, managing millions of federal dollars.
Local long-term relief organizations would augment that, providing furnishings or other materials to help make a reconstructed house a home.
But the situation in West Virginia hasn’t been ideal for quite some time, say leaders of the long-term relief committees in two of the counties that were hardest-hit by the 2016 floods.
“In a perfect world, in a home built by RISE, long-term recovery would then help that family furnish the home and put in appliances because they would include an HVAC and a hot water tank but not a washer-dryer, stove, refrigerator, microwave, that kind of thing,” said Kayla McCoy, program director for the Greater Greenbrier Long Term Recovery Committee.
“So we would just kind of fill the gaps because the goal is complete recovery for every family and we don’t want people moving into empty homes that they can’t afford to furnish.”
West Virginia RISE in the Department of Commerce in the Justice administration is the state agency designated to manage Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of the $149,875,000 West Virginia has available, the state still has $148,736,333 left on hand.
Some of that money is supposed to go to economic development efforts, some to rebuild infrastructure and a big hunk to help residents with housing.
“Disaster recovery partners around the state have been frustrated with the lack of movement displayed through RISE,” McCoy said Thursday during an interview in Lewisburg.
“We are primed through all of our disaster recovery training to use those federal dollars first because they’re so restrictive and they can only go to certain things. So we are cautioned over and over again: ‘Wait for the federal resources, wait for the federal resources’ and then you can fill in the gaps afterwards.
“However, we are almost two years out from our disaster date. We still have families that are hidden homeless, staying with relatives or they’re in rentals when they were homeowners at the time of the flood. And we feel most of our disaster recovery partners feel that we can’t wait.”
That has meant raising funds and recruiting volunteer teams to move ahead.
The Greater Greenbrier Long Term Recovery Committee covers Greenbrier, Monroe and Pocahontas counties.
At first it had 1,500 families in its database needing help. Through donations and volunteer efforts, the committee has gotten down to 132 open cases in the service area.
Volunteers this summer will be mucking out homes that have never been touched. They’ll also be putting in installation, dealing with mold issues and performing other work to help people’s situations continue to improve. Some are building entirely new homes.
Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief do come with a certain amount of expected buildup time. Planning is part of the process.
But it’s taken longer than most of those involved in West Virginia’s local efforts had anticipated.
“We knew we were anticipating a significant amount of lead time on this,” McCoy said. “We were given dates that were continually pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. And so we had families thinking they would be home by Christmas and now it’s almost summertime and we’re still waiting.”
Susan Jack, executive director of the Greater Kanawha Long Term Recovery Committee, described similar problems. Jack spoke Thursday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
She said it’s been hard to tell people who need help when they can expect it.
“Well, we didn’t really know what to tell them because we hadn’t heard anything,” said Jack, who was a flood victim too.
“They continue to ask about the status of RISE and when it’s going to come through and we didn’t know what to tell them because we hadn’t been informed of anything. It would have been nice to have had something to tell people because a lot of people have been waiting for a very long time.”
Kanawha long-term flood relief workers also tried to hold off on spending money they thought would eventually come from RISE.
“We didn’t want to use donated dollars for something the federal government was going to pay for,” Jack said. “We would rather use those for people who didn’t qualify for RISE. After a while we just had to say, ‘Hey, we can’t wait any longer. These people need help, and we continued on as normal.”
Jack, who lives in Clendenin in a flooded house that she’s been renovating, described frustration in her community.
“There were a tremendous number of people who couldn’t even qualify for RISE,” she said. “The people who did qualify are frustrated because they haven’t heard anything. And then you have the people who didn’t qualify.”
She said a lot of people can’t meet the income-based eligibility requirements.
The most vulnerable — those who can meet the requirements — were among the first to receive help from volunteers and faith-based organizations, she said.
“In the initial phases of flood recovery, when you have a lot of people coming in, they’re naturally focused on low-income folks, the disabled and the elderly,” Jack said. “So in typical situations like this, those are folks who were served first, right out of the gate.
“There’s a lot of people out there who qualify for RISE but the pool of candidates was reduced significantly because the program really didn’t come along until 13, 16 months after the fact.”
Susan Jack with the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee joins @HoppyKercheval to explain the effects of bureaucratic problems with RISE flood relief. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIAoe1 pic.twitter.com/gSQvX90rPf
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) May 31, 2018
Part, but not all, of the delays with RISE was because of a contract with a consultant that went under review by the Governor’s Office.
On Wednesday evening, Gov. Jim Justice tweeted that the review has ended and the program is moving back into gear.
The headline for the announcement was “Governor Justice makes good on RISE promise; program running again, families getting keys to new homes.”
“I gave a directive to get this program back up and running so that we can get our hurting neighbors a new home to settle back into,” Justice stated. “I have been on the frontlines with these families since day one, I’ve witnessed the devastation firsthand and I want for those still waiting for help to be taken care of as quickly as possible.
McCoy of the Greenbrier long-term relief committee said she was pleased to hear that news.
“That’s the best news we could possibly hear. I’m thrilled that there has been an investigation into this. I’m thrilled that they think they can get it back on track. Our flood-affected families can’t continue to wait.”
Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, is one of the leaders of a legislative committee. Hanshaw is among lawmakers who have expressed concerns about the pace of long-term recovery.
“I’m happy that they’re taking a hard look at what happened,” Hanshaw said of the Governor’s Office. “There are still unanswered questions, though.”
Hanshaw is focused on trying to make sure West Virginia doesn’t go through a similar holdup with relief money the next time the state faces a flood.
“We know bureaucratic failures happen, and we need to make sure they don’t happen again,” Hanshaw said Thursday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) May 31, 2018