Approaching the fourth anniversary of devastating flooding, West Virginia is hitting a milestone on the recovery effort.
All of the remaining homes under the RISE West Virginia program are moving toward contract, Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard said.
“In the last couple of days, we sent the last number of houses down to the purchasing department to put into the request for proposal process,” Hoyer said. “So, at this point, we have all of the cases loaded into the process. The milestone is, we’ve hit that point.”
That doesn’t mean the homes are near completion or even that construction would start right away. But moving toward contract is a significant step in the process of getting flood victims back under roofs of their own.
“While it’s not optimum of where I would have liked to have been, or where the governor would have liked us to have been, a lot of really hard work has gone into helping continue to make families whole,” Hoyer said.
Torrential rains on June 23, 2016, caused flood waters to rise quickly in central and southern West Virginia communities along sheer hillsides.
The flooding caused severe damage to roads, bridges, buildings and homes. West Virginia, in fitful fashion, has been working toward recovery ever since.
The most recent update from the West Virginia National Guard showed 258 active cases under RISE, the program the state set up to rebuild, replace or repair flood victims’ homes using grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of those, 171 homes are considered complete.
The rest are at various steps in the process, including those in the pipeline to be assigned to contractors.
The National Guard has been busy with many aspects of West Virginia’s response to coronavirus, including the identification and distribution of personal protective equipment, support for data collection and help with contact tracing for those with confirmed test results for the virus.
But Hoyer said the work to get flood victims back under roof has continued too.
“Grant funding expended during the covid-19 response piece is about $12 million,” Hoyer said. “I think another great story is that 97 percent of all the funds that we’ve expended have gone to low- to moderate-income families.
“While we’re still on that slow spender piece because of the nature of the way things work, we’ve expended about $33 million of grant funds, 180 houses have been completed and during the response we’ve quietly completed 51 housing projects.”
The slow spender designation that Hoyer described is an official description used by HUD to reflect the pace of states using community development block grants for disaster relief.
West Virginia has only briefly come off the slow spender designation since being granted $149,875,000.
The most recent report available from HUD, March 1, showed that West Virginia still had a balance of $124,961,562 at the time and was still labeled a slow spender.
Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, one of the chairmen of the Legislature’s committee on flooding, said it seems like the pace of relief has picked up.
But Jeffries noted that there are still a lot of homes to go.
“These people that have waited, God bless ‘em,” Jeffries said.
During the most recent legislative session, a bill passed that was intended to make the contracting process more efficient — and possibly make bidding more enticing to a broader number of companies.
“Hopefully that will move this group of houses much quicker and will allow local contractors to get involved, rather than just two or three contractors that handle the same bids,” Jeffries said.
“Unfortunately, due to timing, I don’t know what the current environment or situation is for local contractors. But hopefully they can participate in this bidding process and we get them some of this work.”
Jeffries gave West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster credit for work with case management that has seemed to move work along.
“When VOAD was brought in to assist on this. That’s what they do. They build houses. They gather resources, and they do that very well,” Jeffries said.
“That’s a lesson we’ve learned in using resources that specialize in things such as reconstructing homes. Looking ahead, I would hope we would use an organization like VOAD or something else with that expertise to manage getting these houses built if we have to do this again.”
Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, whose district is also still recovering from the 2016 flood, said relief progress has been steady since the National Guard took over, particularly in the past four months.
“At the same time, it’s been four years since the flood and RISE still has more homes to build than have been built so far. Part of that is red tape. Part is a lack of contractors. We can’t let up. We have to continue to do whatever it takes to get folks in houses with a sense of urgency,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said it is important to maintain focus on flood relief until the final family receives a key to a home.
“Getting folks into the construction process is a good thing, but I’m afraid that sets up an expectation that flood survivors will be in their homes quickly,” he said. “At minimum, the construction process takes months. We need to be fully transparent about the timeline so expectations are realistic.”