Amid a torrent of mold, sickness and bureaucracy, a couple filed a lawsuit against a troubled flood relief program, seeking to force the state to follow through on its agreement and rebuild their flood-ravaged home.
Dee and Vesper Hanshaw signed a contract in January with RISE West Virginia, a state-run flood recovery effort intended to channel $150 million in federal monies into rebuilding homes for low-income victims of the deadly 2016 flood.
As they wait, the two are living in a school bus provided by a neighbor on their property, the lawsuit, filed in November, states.
“This house will not make it another winter,” Dee Hanshaw said in an interview this summer.
According to the state, RISE finalized an agreement with the Hanshaws on Thursday to provide them a new home to live in that will be complete in March 2020, assuming no delays.
Purchasing and contracting issues bogged down the program, leaving hundreds of flood victims waiting. In the wake of the resulting fiasco, former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and several of his staffers connected to the program were ousted.
As the Hanshaws have waited for RISE to rebuild their Summersville home, the state has offered to put them in interim housing in Richwood. However, the residence would be too far away for the Hanshaws’ doctors, they say.
“We’re just trying to compel the state and the RISE West Virginia program to provide the necessary housing to flood victims,” said Bren Pomponio, the Hanshaws’ lawyer. “It’s been over three years since the flood, and the Hanshaws have endured two winters without suitable housing and are entering a third.”
The lawsuit specifically names Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, whose department houses the RISE program.
On Friday, a lawyer for the state sought to dismiss the lawsuit.
“Simply put, the petitioners don’t allege that the respondent has violated any law in the administration of the grant,” the state said. “The petitioners merely seek this court’s intervention to run the grant program because they are dissatisfied with how the state has administered it.”
According to the state, a contractor inspected the Hanshaw’s property in March. The contractor said he could not demolish the home within RISE’s funding cap because this would require HAZMAT-certified professionals to handle several health hazards, including “a rat infestation and an accumulation of feces throughout the property, and mold.”
The house is also only accessible by a bridge, which the state argued would not support the weight of demolition equipment. This, coupled with state contracting laws, caused the delay.
However, when RISE officials learned the family owns an adjacent property, they found a contractor who agreed, on Nov. 21, to build a new home there. The Hanshaws signed an agreement to this effect Thursday, the state claims.
The new home will be completed 13 weeks from Thursday, assuming a five-day work week with no delays due to temperature, weather or other circumstances, the state said.
Vesper Hanshaw suffers from COPD, asthma, diabetes and epilepsy. Dee Hanshaw became disabled after a car accident in 2010.
The Gazette-Mail profiled the Hanshaws’ housing situation in June, as mold crawled up the walls of the home and the house’s structure gave way to water damage.
While the Hanshaws say the Richwood home is too far from their doctors, Pomponio said Vesper Hanshaw’s doctors told him he shouldn’t be breathing the moldy air inside.
“Vesper has these physical conditions, that the mold in the house — he can’t stay in there,” he said. “Dee is cooking and doing laundry and stuff like that there, and kinda off and on staying there, but it’s not good for her health either.”
Workers with RISE and a volunteer organization repeatedly offered to assist the Hanshaw’s in procuring housing in the interim to no avail, the state said in its response. They say they also offered to place a “tiny home” on the Hanshaw’s property while they wait.
The federal government gave RISE permission to begin spending funds in February 2018. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Jim Justice ordered a “freeze” of the program after a change order on a roughly $1 million contract circumvented purchasing protocol and snowballed into an $18 million agreement.
By June 2018, RISE had not yet completed a single home according to a legislative audit, and Justice transferred oversight of the program to the West Virginia National Guard.
Since then, RISE has completed 93 homes (mostly mobile home replacement units), with 72 in active construction. RISE has 400 active cases — 236 total rebuilds, 34 needing rehabilitation, 72 new mobile homes to install and 58 cases still awaiting assessment, according to the National Guard.
Pomponio also sued RISE in June, alleging program administrators ignored two public records requests for financial and other documents. He ultimately obtained them. His suit representing the Hanshaws states RISE has only spent 10 percent of its funds in the three-plus years since the flood.
He said the Hanshaw case is emblematic of a program that put more weight on its shoulders than it could bear, with real human consequences.
“I just think you have a bureaucracy here that’s not equipped to respond to this housing crisis for these flood victims,” he said.