Nearly three years into a flood recovery effort here in southern West Virginia, a number of officials at the federal, state and local levels have proven they are in over their heads administratively and that they do not possess the necessary compassion, will or know-how to get the job done.
Turns out, some may be criminally inclined, as well.
Well, we need action now, top to bottom, from D.C. to the local town hall, all the way to the governor’s mansion in Charleston – if anyone is at home and paying attention.
As Gov. Jim Justice might say himself, what we have here is an 18-karat dog mess. And it is the governor’s job, before anyone else, to clean it up.
In Richwood, after an 18-month investigation by the State Auditor’s Office of Public Integrity and Fraud, four Richwood officials – a former mayor, the current mayor, the police chief and a former city clerk – were arrested, accused on various counts of embezzlement and misuse of public funds.
Highlighted in the report was the city’s designated flood recovery team, known as ICS, which allegedly diverted monies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to enrich themselves, their families, their friends and outside consultants.
Despite the influx of nearly $3.1 million in federal assistance to assist the city’s recovery efforts, “incompetence and a total lack of fiscal management,” in the words of the state auditor, have left Richwood on the brink of bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, in a Congressional committee hearing in D.C., Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) was grilling Peter Gaynar, acting administrator for FEMA, about the slow pace of school restoration in Kanawha and Nicholas counties – including the high school in Richwood.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect the community to get very impatient with the bureaucracy of acquiring property and all of the environmental assessments,” Capito said. “What can you say to a community that is now three years past the flood, who are in temporaries, what kind of partnership can we expect from FEMA to move this quicker?”
Gaynar’s response was straight out of the playbook of the federal Bureau of Obfuscation and Misdirection: “Sometimes that due diligence takes longer than people like, but it’s in the best interest of FEMA, in this case, the best interest of the state, and it’s in the best interest of the taxpayers.”
It’s about taking your eye off the ball, sir. It’s about being dismissive of the needs of the people of West Virginia.
There is now a class of seniors, graduating this May, who will not have been in their high school for three years. Next spring, there will be a graduating class of seniors who will not have known what it is to call a high school home. But, go ahead, Mr. Gaynar, hide behind your petty excuse for bureaucratic bungling. You only confirm all of the negative impressions we have formed about FEMA over the years. In this case, three years.
To top it all off, at a recent press conference in Charleston to review flood recovery progress in the state’s response to the 2016 disaster, Adjutant General James Hoyer and Homeland Security Director Michael Todorovich agreed that the state needs to do more to support communities trying to recover from natural disasters.
And yet, of the $149,875,000 that West Virginia had available for setting all lives back to plumb, the state still has $136,601,297 left. So, no, money is not the issue.
As of last June, this became Hoyer’s job as assigned by Gov. Justice.
Hoyer said 47 housing cases have been completed. Not terribly impressive, especially when you consider that there remain 476 cases – 245 needing total reconstruction, 105 requiring some form of rehabilitation actions and 114 new mobile home replacements. A dozen other cases await initial project type.
We are not encouraged.
But we do not believe this challenge is beyond the abilities of those in this state or our federal government if, indeed, they are putting in an honest day’s work each and every day they show up on the job. If anyone needs a lesson on how to marshal forces to get a job done on a local level, Mayor Andy Pendleton can give all a lesson or two. When the floods hit her little town of Rainelle, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work – and put her town back on firm footing. She proved that, yes, no matter how bleak the present looked, there was a way forward – without pinching a penny for herself, without issuing bureaucratic pap, without exercising a convenient excuse. She just got the job done.
It’s way past time for others – who draw much bigger paychecks, by the way – to do the same.
Or, please, give the responsibility to someone who cares.
— The Register-Herald