A few days into his new role overseeing a troubled federal flood recovery effort, the adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard shed light on some of the problems bogging down RISE West Virginia.
Maj. Gen. James Hoyer boiled down some of the problems with RISE, which, as of March 31, had spent only about $1.1 million of the $150 million available to it, to communications breakdowns and staffing issues. Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday that Hoyer would oversee the program, which exists within the Department of Commerce.
However, Hoyer said he’s not looking to lay blame but to revive the program and help people get their lives back together after the deadly flood that struck West Virginia in June 2016.
“I’m not focused on who did what to who, or what happened in the past,” he said. “My job right now is to focus on fixing staff processes so this thing gets moving so I can look the governor in the eye and say, ‘We are taking care of people.’ ”
Some of the biggest changes, Hoyer said, are consolidating separate case-management systems into one unit under West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and fixing “glitches in the staffing process.”
Additionally, Hoyer announced that families needing assistance through RISE have a number to get help, established through VOAD.
Speaking to a crowd of reporters, legislators and staff, Hoyer asked for 30 days to prove the Guard’s efficacy administering disaster relief funds. He also promised more frequent updates on how many people have been helped and how many remain in need.
According to Justice, RISE’s troubles trace back to a contract with Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based firm that aides states in responding to natural disasters. He said the contract was originally for less than $1 million, but a change order that did not go through proper purchasing channels jacked that figure up to $17 million.
Hoyer said Thursday the state will continue contracting with Horne because changes could cause further delays. However, as Justice said earlier this week, that contract will now cost between $9 million and $10 million.
Wading into the bureaucracy of it all, Hoyer said a recurring theme emerged in problems related to environmental reviews of the houses before their restoration was approved.
“One of the things we found from looking is that there were 300 authorizations for homes that were stuck in the process step related to the environmental review,” he said.
Specifically, he said the problems got down to archaeological processing in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development system, even though the houses were to be rebuilt on the same plots; approvals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that were not fully communicated across state government; and other documentation that never properly made the rounds.
Hoyer said these “kinks” in the system set RISE back and delayed its ability to draw down the available HUD funds. He said West Virginians will see results soon.
“Let people look at our actions over the next 30 days and see how we get people taken care of,” he said.
While Hoyer refrained from assigning blame, Justice said his office will take charge of firing members of the Department of Commerce who “dropped the ball.” However, he said no one has been fired yet.
While he accepted some blame for the actions of Commerce, given the department sits under his executive branch, he said no one in government sounded the alarm as they should have.
“From the legislative side, and I’m not casting stones in any way there either, but no one came to my office and said, ‘Governor, there’s a problem,’ ” he said. “Absolutely, I’m your governor, I take responsibility for any and all. But I’m telling you there’s a lot, a lot, a lot of antennas that could have gone up in a lot of ways and could have assisted the governor.”
In a statement issued through a spokesman last month, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he met with staff members for Justice, the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, congressional staff and representatives of towns affected by flooding to discuss concerns.
“In late 2017, it became clear in my dealings with the areas affected by the flooding that there were concerns regarding the recovery efforts,” he said. “At our request, a meeting was held Nov. 13, during our November legislative interim meetings, to share these concerns with various agencies. We were assured at this meeting that steps were being taken to address the concerns. We have continued to follow up on those concerns.”
Families seeking help from RISE can call 304-220-2570.
Also Thursday, Justice and Chris Hamilton, senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, lauded President Donald Trump’s plan to keep coal-fired power plants from closing, out of national security concerns, by ordering grid operators to buy their electricity.
Justice also pleaded with those in attendance to remember and respect U.S. coal miners. He did not mention a man who died at a mine in Randolph County on Tuesday (although he issued a news release Wednesday) or several miners at his company alleging in federal court that their paychecks have bounced.