Patience Wears Thin 25 Months After Deadly Flood

As set forward initially, the state’s action plan for flood recovery estimated that some 1,000 housing units would be needed statewide.

by Tina Alvey, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. / August 5, 2018

(TNS) - Patience is wearing thin in Greenbrier County, W. Va., where some people continue to live in marginally habitable structures more than 25 months after the deadly flood that claimed nearly two dozen lives and caused millions of dollars of property damage across West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the state’s RISE program is in possession of nearly $150 million in HUD funding intended to assist low-income flood victims with their housing needs.

To date, the amount spent on home placement, construction and rehabilitation totals $784,407.75, according to the man who earlier this summer took charge of the RISE program, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. An additional $583,000 has been obligated for payment of outstanding invoices, he added.

But Hoyer indicated the flow of funding is about to surge.

“Next week, we’ll announce several developments that will significantly accelerate the execution of funds related to housing,” Hoyer told The Register-Herald on Friday.

In a July 27 update on the program, Hoyer announced that he has been working with HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) on a pair of amendments in RISE’s action plan. If approved, the first of those amendments would allow the program to replace doublewide mobile homes that were demolished in the flood. The second amendment would permit subgrant work on home rehabilitation and individual and community bridge replacements.

In an emailed response to questions from The Register-Herald concerning the potential diversion of HUD funds from the program’s original purpose, Hoyer said changes would not be immediate.

“Until we have completed a full assessment on the number of families that are eligible for HUD housing support, we will not be making any deviations from the current action plan,” he said. “Once we have identified those numbers, we will work with HUD to make appropriate adjustments.”

As set forward initially, the state’s action plan for flood recovery estimated that some 1,000 housing units would be needed statewide.

Hoyer also deflected rumors of a rift between the state and Horne, LLP, while acknowledging that the relationship will not necessarily be long-term. Horne is a Mississippi-based consulting firm that was hired to assist with the RISE program when it was first assigned to the Commerce Department, prior to Hoyer’s involvement.

“The state plans to continue its relationship with Horne and will leverage Horne’s expertise to help the state of West Virginia to develop the appropriate infrastructure to do such programs on its own in the future,” Hoyer said in response to Register-Herald questions.

Horne has been paid $250,925.97 out of CDBG-DR (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery) funds, Hoyer noted.

If Hoyer’s plan for doublewide mobile home replacements comes to pass, it will count as good news to Lawana Vest-Hughes and her husband, Stevie Hughes, who have been making do in cramped quarters since the flood — most recently a 1979 single-wide trailer.

Only minutes after a Register-Herald photographer had left the retired couple’s trailer near Rupert this past Tuesday, Vest-Hughes received a long-awaited phone call from a representative from VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). The caller advised Vest-Hughes that someone would be assessing her property by the end of the week for possible replacement of the doublewide the couple had lived in prior to the flood.

“I’ve been way past frustrated,” the 64-year-old Vest-Hughes said. “I try to keep it all under control, but sometimes you just have to speak up.”

The retirees purchased their land, just off Anjean Road, in 2013. They’d lived in the doublewide with their son for only three years when floodwaters washed away their comfortable nest in June 2016.

“We weren’t even in the flood zone before, but now we are,” Vest-Hughes said, noting her husband and son were in their home when the water came rushing through.

“My husband told me that it looked like the ocean just broke through here,” Vest-Hughes said.

When Hughes woke his son from a nap that day amid the rising tide and told him they needed to get out of the house, the young man mumbled that he’d get up “in a few minutes.” Hughes responded urgently, “Son, you ain’t got a few minutes. Get up now!”

The doublewide didn’t completely wash away in the flood, but when the family returned to their property after the water receded, they discovered their home was in ruins.

“The floors were buckled. The ceiling fell in. It was a mess,” Vest-Hughes recalled. “A couple of churches made sure we had food to eat and clothes on our backs. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do next.”

After spending a week in a tent, the family obtained a camper from some local church members and lived in it for the next seven months, while the wreckage of their former home was cleared away. Their son continued to live in the camper for a while after the couple bought the trailer in which they now live.

“It’s nothing like what we had before,” Vest-Hughes commented, but she added that many people are worse off than she and her husband are.

“I get frustrated for those who don’t have anything and still don’t have a place to live,” she said. “There’s still people that don’t have homes.”

Vest-Hughes said that over the past several months she’s been told by various agencies — including RISE and VOAD — that a brand new 2018 mobile home will “soon” take the place of her current living arrangements. But she remains skeptical.

“It’s been very stressful and aggravating,” she said. “They tell you the same thing over and over and over again, and nothing ever gets done.”

Paula Brown shares Vest-Hughes’ frustration.

The deputy director of Greenbrier County Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Brown has served as an advocate for many of the Greenbrier County applicants for assistance, including the Vest-Hughes family.

Brown said at first she tried to work behind the scenes, refraining from airing her concerns in public. But when that strategy appeared to be getting no results, she began to share information with the media, in an effort to get the word out about the unaddressed needs in her county.

“We went to all of our U.S. senators and state legislators,” Brown said. “We didn’t get anywhere. It’s horrible.”

As recently as late July, Brown said she was given a list of 25 properties that had not yet been inspected on a “cold case list” compiled by the West Virginia National Guard, only to discover that 90 percent of the properties on the list are located in municipalities and, thus, have to be dealt with in the cities, not the county.

“Most of these homes were not even on our radar. Some were in areas with no flooding,” Brown said.

Greenbrier County Commissioner Lowell Rose is also dismayed by the state’s lack of progress in allocating available resources to help long-suffering flood victims.

“There’s a long list of houses in Greenbrier County (in need of assistance),” Rose said.

Recent figures shared by Brown indicate, as of July 27, the county had 150 active RISE cases, 31 cases deemed inactive/on hold and 12 “active mobile homes,” meaning they are active cases, but no mobile homes have yet been placed. The county has 11 rehabs and 10 reconstructions that have been approved.

“There will be a lot of paperwork for the county to complete,” Rose noted, saying the commission may need to hire an outside contractor to help process the paperwork.

“We want to get as many applications processed as we can,” he said.

Municipal officials are somewhat more sanguine about the slow pace of the RISE process, although they are beginning to chafe at the lack of information flowing from Charleston.

“Information seems to be sketchy getting down to us on the RISE program,” said White Sulphur Springs city manager Lloyd Haynes. “We haven’t received any specifics.”

Haynes and his employees are currently gathering data about dilapidated structures that are under consideration for demolition by the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).

“Inspections need to be done,” he said. “Some dwellings were inspected before and may have to be redone. We have received no update on that yet.”

Haynes pins a lot of hope on the county’s ability to do some of the heavy lifting.

“I think we’ll go through the county for inspections,” he said. “The county has been doing all of the coordinating. We’re in close contact with them.”

Although he doesn’t have an exact head count, Haynes said he knows many White Sulphur Springs residents are still waiting on assistance from HMGP, RISE and other programs.

“We haven’t seen any (RISE) workers at this point,” he said. “We are told that it is going to happen; it’s going to get back on track. But we haven’t seen any activity in White Sulphur.”

Rainelle is also waiting for RISE projects to break ground, also anticipating mounds of paperwork and also hoping that other entities will step in to conduct necessary inspections.

Mayor Andrea “Andy” Pendleton has placed much of her faith in the nonprofit Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a Tennessee-based Christian ministry that has rebuilt and restored dozens of homes in Rainelle in the 25 months since the flood.

Even though ASP’s initial two-year commitment to rebuild Rainelle has concluded, the nonprofit still maintains an office in the tiny Greenbrier County town. ASP also was one of the construction firms prematurely awarded RISE contracts by the state Commerce Department. It is not clear whether that contract will stand, or if ASP will be awarded another contract, now that RISE has begun to once again move forward.

ASP’s local flood recovery coordinator did not return a phone message seeking comment for this story.

Pendleton believes that ASP volunteers will soon resume construction in her town, although not necessarily with RISE funding. She is also confident that RISE will come through for Rainelle eventually and build rental units and reconstruct houses.

She acknowledged there is currently no RISE construction under way in Rainelle, but said the West Virginia National Guard plans to demolish five severely flood-damaged downtown buildings on Main Street, as soon as funding for the tear-down is approved by the federal government, under HMGP.

“We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” a doggedly optimistic Pendleton said. “I feel better now that Gen. Hoyer has taken over.”



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