CHARLESTON, Wv. (WV MetroNews) -- The general counsel for Gov. Jim Justice says he thought a meeting in early November, 2017, was meant to mediate disagreements over flood relief allocations, but documents show the result actually set infrastructure and economic development as priorities over housing.
General Counsel Brian Abraham was sworn in and testified before a subcommittee of lawmakers examining the flood relief issue. He wound up in an exchange with Delegate Dean Jeffries, who appeared incredulous.
About a dozen people who lost homes in the catastrophic 2016 flood attended the meeting. Many said they are still waiting for housing buyouts through federal Hazard Mitigation Grant dollars.
Those citizens and lawmakers have been concerned by appearances that infrastructure needs such as water projects and generators were ranked above homeowners for disaster dollars.
Abraham said he could straighten out some matters that have been in public discussion recently.
“For instance, there was some media last week that we had shifted priorities,” Abraham told legislators. “It got inferred that we shifted priorities within the HMPG program based on a meeting that happened in 2017. So I think I can shed some light on that.
“You’ll find that was not, in fact, the case. As it turned out it was actually was a conflict resolution seminar regarding our operation as it related to HUD monies we’d received and the RISE program, as well as DHSEM’s response to the recovery.”
He made reference to a conflict that was going on about that time regarding consolidation of Nicholas County Schools, including the flooded Richwood High School.
“Based on that, it was our office’s impression, the Governor’s Office, that we were going to the meeting to try to de-conflict those issues between the schools. So the governor walked in and announced, ‘I want to see you all work together; West Virginia needs to be on the same page. We need to get our act together; move forward; I would like to see these schools be two schools.'”
It’s true that there was an event with the purpose Abraham described.
But this meeting was not that.
On Oct. 13, 2017, Abraham and others received an email from FEMA to prepare them for two upcoming events.
One was a consensus building effort having to do with the schools. There was an assessment period in West Virginia from Oct. 30 to Nov. 10. That’s the same week the key parties gathered for a separate meeting to guide flood relief priorities.
The email described both events, but the disaster relief priority meeting was differentiated with its own bullet point. That said:
“The governor will sponsor the Disaster Recovery Summit on the 7th of November. As discussed, this will be a small group of decision makers plus one to craft the overarching, unified strategy that multiple state and federal agencies will use to guide recovery funding decisions related to the June 2016 flood event strategy.”
It notes that a “Save the Date” had been sent to participants and specifies a “key ask” that the Governor’s Office reinforce the importance of attending.
Also attached was a more detailed description of the event, plus a list of those invited and an agenda.
Much of this discussion came about because of MetroNews reporting on the priorities that wound up being reflected by the Nov. 7, 2017, “Disaster Recovery Summit,” which was a two-hour meeting.
Three separate documents describe an outcome of the meeting as shifting priorities for Hazard Mitigation Grant funds from housing to infrastructure. There was also discussion of shifting allocations for separate money from HUD, although participants agreed that would be very challenging.
One document, a FEMA newsletter called “Forward Recovery,” described the situation.
“The disaster marked the first time that West Virginia received a Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant –Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) allocation and it was the largest amount of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds ever received.
“Due to the complexity of the situation, the meeting was convened to ensure that there was a holistic strategy for the use of these recovery funds.”
That newsletter described proposals to shift how funds would be used.
“Participants raised concerns that CDBG-DR and HMGP were allocating more funding toward housing recovery beyond what is needed. Participants also discussed other significant unmet needs in addition to housing.
“As a result, the state Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management decided to re-prioritize grant applications with a focus on infrastructure. Also, the state Dept. of Commerce agreed to work with HUD to determine the steps and requirements to ultimately reallocate housing funds once the unmet needs have been fully met.”
The second document was a summary and minutes of the Nov. 7, 2017, meeting.
One distinct section deals with reprioritizing mitigation funds: “WV DHSEM will review their submitted applications and prioritize infrastructure projects before housing.”
A separate section describes possible reallocation of the HUD funds, which would require proving West Virginia has met the remaining housing need. HUD confirmed this month that no official request by West Virginia to do so has been made.
The third document was a PowerPoint that was produced internally at West Virginia Emergency Management as an outcome of the meeting. It discusses the uses of mitigation money.
The second page says “Governor set priorities
“Priorities changed with the election of a new governor.”
Abraham told legislators the true focus of the meeting was how to deal with HUD dollars and said Emergency Management reacted to the meeting by rearranging priorities. He emphasized that Governor Justice’s emphasis has always been on housing.
“Always the governor’s first priority has been to make sure homes are taken care of,” Abraham said.
Those documents were the focus of an exchange between Abraham and Delegate Jeffries, R-Kanawha, who described residents of his Elkview community still living in campers without running water.
“They’re very specific. You have a pre-reading. There are meeting minutes. It even has times everything is involved. At no time does it refer to conflict resolution,” Jeffries said.
“They’re very specific and they address who requested that we address to infrastructure from housing and who agrees with it and what would have to be done. Very specific this document. Not at all what you described.”
Abraham responded, referring to the moderator from FEMA.
“If we weren’t there for some conflict resolution, we wouldn’t have needed Miss Watkins. Until that day, we hadn’t been made aware. We end up at this meeting, which was quite an eye-opening experience. It was a brainstorming session.”
Of the summary of the meeting, Abraham said, “Who took those notes, I have no idea.”
Nevertheless, state officials told legislators today that mitigation fund priorities will be flipped going forward, with housing requests moving ahead of infrastructure projects.
“All that notwithstanding, the governor has directed us and directed DHSEM that despite whatever prioritization we had — whether it was under this old list of infrastructure or mitigation — that we will redirect those monies to the remaining housing that’s out there and we will try to clean the slate.”
A flood victim who attended the meeting, Junior Naylor of Clendenin, said he still wants some help with his house.
“They tore my home down. Nothing left there but a little bit of straw and dirt and grass, and I’m waiting for them to give them the money they promised me.”
Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, ended the meeting by saying he’s tired of not getting full answers. He suggested all state officials who know about flood relief should be lined up and sworn in at the next meeting.
“We have people out there living in trailers for three years. That’s got to come to an end,” Blair said.
Blair added, “I don’t want to be here this time next year having the same conversation. That’s unacceptable.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who is not on the flood committee, commented on the ongoing controversies this morning on WCHS-AM with host Danny Jones.
“At the top of the list, we should be restoring the housing that was destroyed so people can get back into their homes or other homes that have running water or plumbing and all of the things that are necessary to conduct life,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael was critical of the concept of making infrastructure a priority over housing for disaster victims.
“For those things to be reprioritized in such a manner that that falls down the list, that’s just ridiculous. That’s just basic human needs,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
“I can’t imagine someone sitting in a meeting and saying we have $200 million here. What do we want to do with this? We have people who are not in homes and somehow not being the top priority. That’s ridiculous. Get homes for these precious citizens so they can live their lives.”