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WV MetroNews Debate over housing need, use of federal dollars has gone on 3 years after flood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Getting a handle on West Virginia’s housing need following the devastating 2016 flood hasn’t been straightforward.

Following one of the worst disasters in West Virginia historical past, almost 3,500 houses have been deemed structurally damaged by FEMA. At the very least 1,500 houses have been destroyed, state officials stated.

But those backside line numbers have not been so easy.

The question has been not solely how many houses want changing but how much federal cash is important to satisfy the necessity — and what is the greatest use of that money.

There are a couple of causes for the evolution of West Virginia’s post-disaster housing need.

One is that the enormity of the catastrophe meant state leaders have been taking educated guesses at first in an try and swiftly request federal aid dollars.

Another is that volunteer organizations met more of the housing demand than anyone had anticipated initially. When that turned obvious, state officials in several camps disagreed over how a lot housing want remained to be met by authorities assets.

Now, as West Virginia RISE continues to assess instances, the numbers might go up or down.

Stephen Baldwin

“The numbers have oscillated greatly over time, and I think they continue to oscillate,” stated Delegate Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who instructed a yr in the past that the state ought to full a housing assessment to clarify concern.

West Virginia simply handed the third anniversary of the devastating storm that killed 23 individuals. The restoration continues at a frustrating tempo.

And for state officers and observers, it’s been a problem just to define the numbers of what the restoration must be.

West Virginia MetroNews went over paperwork and communications obtained by way of a number of Freedom of Info Act requests.

The information community also examined public statements concerning the housing want and interviewed officials on all sides of the disaster aid effort.

How a lot housing want has the state had? That has depended on when the query was being asked and who was assessing it.

Lots of with out homes, hundreds of thousands of dollars

The earliest compilation of numbers appeared to be in a Sept. 13, 2016, report. That report, introduced by then-Emergency Administration Director Jimmy Gianato, showed 1,400 houses destroyed and a couple of,300 with substantial injury.

It noted that 90 % didn’t have flood insurance coverage and estimated that housing repairs and alternative prices might exceed $160 million.

James Hoyer

Adjutant Common James Hoyer, the state’s level man on flood aid, stated in an interview this past week that the numbers have been a greatest guess based mostly on an awesome state of affairs and time constraints to use for federal disaster dollars.

At the time, Hoyer stated, state officials have been making an attempt to satisfy a deadline as Congress think about appropriations.

“We had a couple of days to give a number,” he stated. “So everybody erred on the side of the higher number because we didn’t want to come in with something low and not have enough money.”

“I don’t know. I guess some people could say that was wrong. But we were trying to do the best by the people of West Virginia by saying ‘Here’s what the FEMA claims number show. Let’s go with that number.’ You go with that number, you get an allocation based on the political process in D.C.”

A couple of months later, West Virginia acquired a dedication for $104 million in catastrophe aid funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Improvement.

However a March 21, 2017, report on West Virginia’s unmet wants concluded that may not be enough. State officials advised the severity of the injury to houses had not been calculated absolutely and that hundreds of probably the most weak citizens had not been counted.

That report advised West Virginia’s unmet housing need was $295,493,724.

State officers have been crunching those numbers as a result of the state Division of Commerce was getting ready to make a pitch for extra money. A March 28, 2017, e mail from then-Improvement Director Kris Hopkins described an upcoming assembly with then-Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher.

“In preparation for the meeting with Secretary Thrasher on Friday, I would suggest that we be prepared to show him a potential roadmap with a timeline on how we can actually execute this ask for additional funding,” Hopkins wrote.

Jim Justice

The next month state officers have been still describing the need for extra money. An April 25, 2017, press launch providing updates on the RISE disaster aid effort included a press release from Gov. Jim Justice, touting the $104 million already on hand.

“We need more, but it’s a start,” Justice said.

Thrasher noted in the press launch that the state was working to safe extra.

“Despite the money that the state has received, there remain tremendous unmet needs,” Thrasher said. “We are ready to make an additional request that could total more than $400 million, and we are working every single day to tell West Virginia’s story.”

By June 23, 2017, West Virginia was marking the one-year anniversary of the flood. Recovery still had an extended solution to go.

On July 17, 2017, Thrasher and Justice both had their names on a memo to disaster aid candidates. It praised the cash awarded from HUD and emphasized efforts to realize more.

“The funding we have secured from Congress is not enough to fulfill all our unmet needs and assist every impacted citizen, but the Governor and Cabinet Secretary of Commerce will continue our fight to get more funding for West Virginia,” the state officers wrote.

Their efforts paid off with a further $45 million from U.S. Housing and City Improvement.

Paula Brown

Wanting again, it’s unclear if the state officers truly had a clear concept of the demand or how far the money would go, stated Paula Brown, deputy director of emergency management in Greenbrier County, location of some of the worst flooding.

“In the beginning they didn’t have a handle on numbers but they had a wealth of money that they thought would address those needs,” Brown stated in a phone interview final week.

Volunteers make progress, questions arise

A significant factor was the efforts of voluntary organizations, which pitched in to rebuild tons of of houses.

Jenny Gannaway

Jenny Gannaway, the chairwoman for West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Lively in Disaster, stated the faith-based and nonprofit organizations that have been moved to help flood victims have been capable of full tons of more houses than anybody had initially believed.

“We have completed over 2,300 cases and got families either rebuilt in their house, repaired their house or replaced with a mobile home,” Gannaway stated.

“That is where the big discrepancy is, I think. In the beginning, nobody thought the voluntary agencies would do that much work.”

Hoyer, in an interview final week, agreed.

“You’ve got all these donated dollars and people start recovering and that piece, so now the number changes,” he stated.

All that success by volunteer teams led to questions among state officers about how greatest to use the $149 million out there from U.S. Housing and Urban Improvement.

On Nov. 7, 2017, Gov. Jim Justice convened a meeting to speak about how greatest to use the money out there from HUD plus the tens of millions more dollars in mitigation grant funds out there from the Federal Emergency Administration Company.

The group that gathered famous that the volunteer teams had already rebuilt or rehabbed 1,000 houses. Members questioned whether or not there was $100 million left in unmet housing needs, or if some of the funding must be reallocated to help infrastructure and economic improvement.

“Conversation was started by General Hoyer, who indicated that he did not feel that housing was any longer the top priority,” in response to the minutes of the session.

“He indicated that through the state VOAD and other faith-based groups, at least half of the 2,000 homes damaged in June 2016 had been repaired/rebuilt. Therefore, housing was no longer the top priority.”

The state officials who gathered wound up agreeing that infrastructure ought to be the top priority, followed by economic improvement and then housing.

As the assembly neared its conclusion, the group decided to start out talking with U.S. Housing and City Improvement about how the federal catastrophe aid dollars could possibly be shifted.

A regional HUD official who was there, Julie Alston, indicated it was potential however would not be straightforward as a result of of the federal agency’s requirements that a certain proportion of the funding be allotted directly to housing. Whatever does not still needs to be tie back into housing.

Alston additionally cautioned the state would have to show that it had met the housing wants: “Something not easily done as the state had just submitted a substantial amendment to their Administrative Plan that was still based on a significant unmet housing need.”

Though West Virginia has continued to talk about shifting the precedence for the cash out there from HUD, the company just lately confirmed that there has not been any official request to do so.

Divides over unmet need

This philosophical divide turned a problem inside the Justice administration.

Woody Thrasher

Thrasher, now operating for governor, a number of weeks ago described robust differences of opinion over what number of homes have been left and how government assets ought to be used to satisfy the necessity.

He stated, “General kept calling me and saying ‘Listen, you’re going to have a whole lot of money left over, and we’re going to need it for infrastructure projects.’ And I said ‘Hey, I’m all about infrastructure projects. But I’m sure housing and Urban Development has a ‘housing’ in front of it.’ They want to make sure housing requirements are taken care of first. Any monies we have left over, absolutely we’ll run over to infrastructure.”

In Thrasher’s reminiscence, Hoyer would say, “Well, your crowd is saying there’s 800 or 1,000 homes, Woody.”

And Thrasher says his response was, “Well that’s what they’re coming up with.”

He says Hoyer would respond, “Well, we’re out here in the field and we know there’s 200 or 300 homes that need to be done.”

Thrasher concluded, “It turned on the market weren’t  200 or 300 houses. There’s still 500 houses and it will be an entire lot more except it’s fallen by the wayside because nothing is being completed, they usually’re still receiving purposes at the moment.

“But we were pressured by Jimmy Gianato and, to some extent General Hoyer, to say ‘Look you’ve got a whole bunch of money; let’s divert a bunch of that money over to infrastructure.’”

Brian Abraham

Brian Abraham, basic counsel for the Governor’s Office, says the volunteer efforts significantly decreased what remained to be completed on housing. Thrasher was the one who miscalculated, Abraham stated at a press conference this spring:

“Woody and his group would are available and temporary the governor’s workplace: ‘RISE is doing great, RISE is doing great. We have 1,200 homes we need to rebuild or reconstruct. And of the $150 million, that’s over $100 million of it.’

“At the same time when you’re sitting at the governor’s level and you’re hearing from the DHSEM folks and the VOAD individuals who are running the RISE database that are have access to it and they go ‘Those numbers are way off. We don’t have 1,200 people that need a new home.’”

Abraham stated the dispute continued till Thrasher’s resignation.

“They have been wed to that quantity. We didn’t need to direct that money however first thing that HUD requires and the first thing this governor was dedicated to was getting every sufferer glad absolutely first. Then we needed to see: Do we’ve money for mitigation, infrastructure, all these things that HUD then permits the money to be used for?

“But there was just no willingness over there to accept the fact that their numbers were wrong. And certainly that has proven right now to this day, factually, that they were way, way off.”

On Feb. 20, 2018, after months of buildup, West Virginia obtained the go-ahead from HUD to start out using the hundreds of thousands of dollars in catastrophe aid funding.

But, behind the scenes, the question of shifting how the funding can be used continued.

E-mail exchanges from early March, 2018 — less than a month after West Virginia received the OK to use the money and through a halt on flood aid as a result of of questions over a management contract — show that state officers have been discussing what bureaucratic steps can be necessary to shift how the cash can be used.

Among those discussing the difficulty have been Abraham, Hoyer after which Emergency Manager Gianato, together with MaryAnn Tierney, administrator for FEMA Region III.

Tierney stated the first step in any shift can be determining what housing want really remained.

“As you know, the WV Department of Commerce has provided data to support a substantial housing requirement while your offices believe the housing requirement is much less than described,” Tierney wrote.

In late March, 2018, alerted to West Virginia’s operational pause on flood aid, Housing and Urban Improvement was asking questions concerning the state’s intentions.

The federal agency wrote that “the prospect of substantial reallocation of CDBG-DR funds from housing to economic development or infrastructure activities necessarily raises questions regarding the Department’s prior certification of State capacity and the State’s implementation of the grant in a manner consistent with the requirements of the applicable Federal Register Notices.”

Abraham responded on April 6, 2018, on behalf of the state.

He wrote that HUD had been misinformed.

“While we are reviewing our current unmet housing needs, we are doing so to ensure that no public funds are misspent or wasted on unnecessary projects,” Abraham wrote.

He continued, “Our efforts are usually not in consequence of questions arising from our prior certification of the grant however fairly the belief that tons of of houses have been constructed by volunteer organizations within the time period following the submission of the grant.

“However, no direction has been given to request a reallocation at this time.”

Thrasher was pressured out shortly after that, and Hoyer was named the purpose man for long-term flood aid.

By June 24, 2018, a legislative audit requested whether West Virginia’s government had helped any flood victims in any respect get again of their homes.

“As such, the Legislative Auditor questions whether any individual homeowner has received full assistance from the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program.”

The state of affairs now

As of this previous week, RISE has accomplished 51 houses. Forty-eight are cellular houses and three have been constructed on website.

The newest report says there are 423 housing instances in RISE.

Of these, 291 have been assigned to development management, which is the part of the method from signing an agreement for the work as much as actual development.

HUD continues to listing West Virginia as a “slow spender,” which indicates the state’s pace for closing out the $149 million disaster grant.

Dean Jeffries

Getting a deal with on the numbers and the way West Virginia is utilizing that big monetary useful resource is a frustration for members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding.

“I think it is being made confusing. That’s one of the things we’ve asked is to have some good accounting of these numbers,” stated Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, one of the committee’s co-chairmen.

He stated the committee has asked for regular updates in writing but has but to obtain them.

“We’re not at all happy with the reporting we’re getting and the numbers,” Jeffries stated, “and I think that needs to be more concrete.”

Hoyer stated he needs to be able to show that each one those who lost their houses are beneath roof, but he stated that may nonetheless take time.

“These people want relief and the governor is on me every day to make sure we’re moving as fast as we possibly can but to make sure we meet the requirements,” he stated final week.

Justice, talking at a press convention last month, stated his heart goes out to householders who are nonetheless ready for aid.

“I’m going crazy to make sure we get every single one of these homes where these people were ravaged by the flood, that we get every single last one of them under construction before the end of the year,” Justice stated. “I am going crazy about that.”