State officials estimate they’ll largely meet their goal of completing construction on homes for people displaced by the June 2016 flood, they told a legislative committee Monday.
What’s less clear is if officials will be able to come up with the means to support the demolition of more than 200 homes that were destroyed almost five years ago and are either vacant or abandoned, officials who administer the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program said.
The state is on track to complete the construction of the majority of 110 homes by the end of 2021, Jennifer Ferrell, director of community advancement at the West Virginia Development Office, told the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding.
Ferrell said the exception to that may be a handful of homes for which state officials couldn’t get approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more commonly known as FEMA. Those projects had issues regarding the land on which the houses were to be reconstructed, and state officials have had to seek new land on which to build those homes, Ferrell said.
Committee Chairman Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, told Ferrell that he was aware the goal posts had moved on the effort to construct the homes since the state first was authorized to begin building homes in 2018.
The end of 2021 is one year past when RISE West Virginia officials initially said construction would be completed on 406 homes for those who had been displaced by the flood, Ferrell told the committee in September 2020.
At that meeting, Ferrell told the committee it appeared construction on the homes could be completed by the end of 2021.
The news that most of the homes would be completed by that new mark was good news, Swope said on Monday.
“A few may go over, and that’s what I want the public to be aware of,” Swope said.
As of Monday, construction had been completed on 296 homes as well as 36 bridges, Ferrell said.
“Last year, through the pandemic, I’m happy to say we doubled our housing accomplishments and have not had much of a stop,” Ferrell said.
To date, RISE West Virginia has spent $66 million of the $149.87 million it was awarded in federal grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ferrell said.
Under questioning from Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, Ferrell said RISE West Virginia officials in the summer will be looking into whether they can reallocate some federal Community Development Block Grant funding to support the demolition of houses that were destroyed during the flood.
More than 264 people applied for help in demolishing their destroyed homes after the flood, Bobby Cales, director of the West Virginia Resiliency Office, told the committee.
As of Monday, 42 vacant or abandoned houses had been demolished, Ferrell said.
Differences in standards made it difficult to get houses approved for demolition under FEMA guidelines, Ferrell said.
Of the houses that were confirmed for demolition, issues like asbestos abatement and removal made those projects more expensive than officials initially planned for Ferrell said.
“We’ve had a lot less get through than we had hoped at first, and some of our larger projects have cost more money,” Ferrell said.
People in Baldwin’s district have told him that they were being denied help in demolishing their homes because federal officials said their homes weren’t actually flooded in 2016, despite local and state records confirming their experiences.
“My great concern is there are a lot of folks in that position,” Baldwin said. “There are 264 people that applied. We’ve completed 42 projects, so now we’re out of money. That’s over 200 families that are still waiting on a solution, so I wonder are there any other options for them?”
All four counties in Baldwin’s district, Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers, and Monroe, were among the 12 counties declared disaster areas after the flood.
The other counties that FEMA declared as disaster areas from the 2016 flood are Clay, Kanawha, Nicholas, Jackson, Lincoln, Pocahontas, Roane, and Webster.
Ferrell agreed there was work to do, and she and Baldwin ended the conversation Monday by acknowledging there was a larger ongoing conversation about the issue.
“It’s a major issue in all of our counties, and we’re trying to address the needs of anybody that’s out there,” she said.
In other news, Cales told the committee that the West Virginia Resiliency Office, which became operational in May 2020, launched its website Friday.
Edgar Lopez-Torres, an Ohio University student pursuing a doctorate in chemistry, designed the website. He walked committee members through the site during Monday’s meeting.
The site includes more than 1,400 resources for people to access during a natural disaster, including temporary shelters, hospitals, and food pantries.
Lopez-Torres gave the example of needing food, showing lawmakers that a search for “food” on the Resiliency Office website would provide a list of food pantries and other food sources and provide a map of where those entities are located.
People experiencing the aftermath of any disaster also can search by the type of event they experienced, such as a flood or fire, to find resources to get the help they need, Lopez-Torres said. The site also includes information people can use to contact people in state government for help.
Swope called Lopez-Torres’ work on the website “outstanding.”
The state Resiliency Office web address is https://sro.wv.gov.