Officials warn of long haul with hazard mitigation program

JAKE JARVIS | Gazette-Mail
Representatives from the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at the old Clendenin Middle School Tuesday night, telling residents of the town about the benefits of the program. Brian Penix, the state’s hazard mitigation officer, said seeing the effects of the program could take months, even years.

At the first of several meetings to introduce the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to flood-affected communities, officials warned residents that seeing help from the program will take a while.

The grant program seeks to identify and implement measures a community can take to mitigate future disasters, which could mean buying out a homeowner and demolishing the home, elevating the home or rebuilding it to meet higher safety standards.

Speaking Tuesday evening in the gymnasium of the old Clendenin Middle School, Brian Penix, the state’s hazard mitigation officer, couldn’t tell a crowd of about 200 residents from Clendenin and the surrounding area how long it would take to see any of that grant money. When members of the crowd pressured him, he said it could take months, even years.

“To be honest with you, this is a very, very long process,” Penix said. “We tell everyone, even when we were doing the old massive buyouts, we would tell them to go on about their lives as if they’re not being helped.”

That’s in part because of how competitive the grant program it is. Penix said communities first have to submit a lengthy application to the state, highlighting the community’s priorities for distributing grant money. The state, in turn, has to submit its own application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the grant program.

Having applied for aid or received aid through FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program doesn’t have anything to do with participating in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Even if someone was denied for the Individuals and Households Program, they still may participate in hazard mitigation if their community qualifies. Individuals may not apply for hazard mitigation on their own.

Once the community’s application has been approved, officials will identify what part of the program homeowners qualify for, using the list of priorities the community laid out in its application.

The town of Clendenin could prioritize helping elderly homeowners first, or helping homeowners who live closest to the Elk River. Regardless of how the town decides to prioritize how the grant money is distributed, each town has to follow the same general guidelines.

The program only allows homes located in the floodway — the area directly adjacent to the river or stream that can reasonably expect to flood regularly — to be bought from the homeowner and torn down.

“If I would do that during this event, I would destroy whole communities,” Penix said. “It isn’t just a matter of buying the house to get you out of there, that house would be bought with deed restrictions preventing any further developments on that property. They can’t develop it, they can’t sell it, and they don’t get taxes from it.”

Kevin Sneed, the state’s national flood insurance program coordinator, said homeowners can go to mapwv.gov/floods to see if their home falls in the floodplain or floodway. Once on the website, under the “expert” view, the floodplain is show with thin red cross hatching. Areas in the floodway are outlined with a bold red line.

The two other options, which FEMA officials said it and the state prefers, involves reconstructing the damaged home or elevating the home at no cost to the homeowner. If a structure has been substantially damaged, but a structural engineer doesn’t think the home can be safely elevated without collapsing, the house will be entirely rebuilt.

Having a home elevated or rebuilt would require the homeowner to agree to purchase flood insurance for the rest of the home’s life. This insurance would be significantly cheaper than the cost of flood insurance would have been normally since the home was just updated, according to Sneed.

At the Tuesday night meeting, residents worried that if the town of Clendenin applied for the grant, their homes would be on the hook to be demolished, whether the homeowner likes it or not.

Cristina Pop, a hazard mitigation specialist, tried to ease put those fears to rest. The program is entirely voluntary, she said, and up until the homeowner signs a contract agreeing to let go of their property and allow it to be demolished, they can back out at any time. Even if the town of Clendenin would qualify for the program, homeowners still wouldn’t have to participate in it.

The next public meeting to discuss the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Elkview Middle School. Other meetings will be at Thursday at Alderson City Hall; Sept. 19 at Geary Elementary/Middle School; Sept. 27 at Marlinton Town Hall; and Sept. 28 at Alumni Hall in Richwood. All of those meetings start at 6 p.m.

Reach Jake Jarvis at jake.jarvis@wvgazettemail.com, Facebook.com/newsroomjake, 304-348-7939 or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.

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