By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There were a lot of questions, but not many answers — at least not publicly — during the interims meeting on Sunday of the West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding.
Matt Blackwood, deputy director of the West Virginia Emergency Management Division, and Garner Marks, general counsel for the state’s development office, appeared before legislators during their interim session to discuss funding utilized for recovery following the massive June 2016 flood, and to provide updates on various projects.
Blackwood began the presentation by discussing two financial elements surrounding FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants that may be provided after a flood occurs.
“One is the federal share, and the other is the non-federal share,” Blackwood explained, adding that the federal share is provided through FEMA, and the non-federal share must be paid by a non-federal entity.
He said his office has been working with the Governor’s office to develop a “fair and equitable” plan for funding that must be provided by non-federal entities.
“We are still in the process of reviewing that, and, at this time, the Governor’s office has not approved any plan moving forward,” Blackwood stated.
Following Blackwood’s explanation, Del. David Elliot Pritt, R-Fayette, asked about the status of FEMA funding regarding the damaged sewer line for the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, located in Fayette County.
“Since last August, when the flood in Smithers wiped out all the sewer lines down Cannelton Hollow, Mt. Olive has been pumping all of its sewage straight into Smithers Creek,” Pritt stated. “It’s been going into the Kanawha River.”
Pritt wanted to know where the state was in the process of getting that situation remedied.
Blackwood responded that he would provide a “more detailed response” at a later time, but noted that his office is working with FEMA, the Kanawha Falls Public Service District, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Corrections on that issue.
“I know it’s in progress,” Blackwood said. “Unfortunately, many of these projects are slow, but they are slow on intention because we want to make sure things are being done right according to federal policy, and so that the state doesn’t have any problems further down the road.”
Pritt stated that he would speak with Blackwood after the meeting, but added, “As it’s warmed up, the smell has become intolerable for the people that live up that hollow, and I’ve been getting a lot of calls.”
Blackwood then presented legislators with financial information regarding the 2016 flood, which caused massive damage in multiple counties.
According to Blackwood, of the $436 million in public assistance funding, close to $247 million has been spent, with the remaining $189 million to be used for drawdowns–primarily for school rebuilds in Nicholas and Kanawha counties.
Of the $35.5 million in funding for hazard mitigation, Blackwood said that $22 million has been spent, with $13 million remaining for drawdowns on 35 ongoing projects.
The only federal issue that remains regarding how funding was spent is with the city of Richwood in Nicholas County.
“We have had some trouble with Richwood over the years,” he explained. “We’ve been able to get them off suspension. So the lifting of that suspension is allowing us to close on the projects that we have, that we are working on there, and that allows us to move forward working with them. So, that’s very good.”
When asked for an update on the school related projects in Nicholas County, Blackwood stated that he would provide legislators with an update “very quick.”
Del. Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, then asked for additional information regarding the school projects.
“I’ve got a great working relationship now with our county Board of Education since we got our new one in in 2022, and I will be honest, they say their working relationship with the state, so far, since their instatement, has not been spectacular,” Hanna said.
“With the inflation costs rising and the costs of these projects rising, obviously the Richwood site came in way over bid, and we just went ahead and accepted it anyway,” Hanna continued, adding that the Glade Creek facility will be overbid as well.
“You say you’re working with the county, yourself and FEMA, what suggestions have you actually given them to secure extra funding or lower those costs?” Hanna asked Blackwood. “And I understand that it’s probably difficult working within the realm of finding a solution between the plan that Nicholas County chose, and then, also, the mediation agreement that came from those lawsuits previously. But, what suggestions have you given in regards to lowering that cost or securing extra funding?”
Blackwood responded that he would need to speak with his office’s project staff before giving an answer.
“I, unfortunately, was not part of those specific conversations with the Nicholas County Board of Education,” Blackwood stated. “So, I would not be, I’m not in a position where I can say anything with any certainty until I can talk with our project officers.”
“Obviously, I want to find a solution to this,” Hanna replied. “So, in that update, I would love to see what your suggestions are, but also in that update I’d like to know what your working relationship with our county Board of Education prior to today was as well. I’d like to know a little more detail about those meetings.”
Lastly, Marks provided legislators with an update on the Community Development Block Grant–Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funded projects, which received over $106.4 million.
Marks explained that, as of June 30, 385 housing restoration projects have been completed as well as 54 bridge home projects and 85 demolition projects.
Only two housing restoration projects have yet to be completed, Marks said. The bridge project is 100 percent complete, and there is only one demolition project remaining.
Marks continued that the Joseph’s Crossing multi-family housing project in Nicholas County is at 88 percent completion.
In the Restore Riverview program, the multi-family rental unit Monarch Village in Clendenin is at 84 percent completion, and Patriot Village in Elkview is at 24 percent completion, he added.
Marks also stated that all easements for the town of Clay Sanitary Sewer Rehabilitation project have been obtained, and that construction bids were due on Aug. 1.
“That project is progressing on schedule,” Marks noted.
Following Marks’ presentation, Del. Pritt asked about a recently removed bridge in Fayette County.
“There was a bridge that was part of the emergency evacuation route in the municipality of Oak Hill, down in Minden, and that bridge was recently removed by the DOH (Department of Highways) without any warning to the town of Oak Hill,” Pritt said. “Is there any way that we can secure funding to have this bridge, which is a part of a planned emergency evacuation route, to put a new bridge back in its place?”
Marks responded that he would speak with others in his department to find an answer to Del. Pritt’s question.