In June 2016, Greenbrier County experienced one of the worst flooding disasters in our history. Hundreds of families were caught up in harm’s way and lost their homes.
At first, amid the initial search for assistance for a dry place to stay, the story of their peril was top priority as emergency services and caring neighbors rushed in to help. In time, the headline story gradually faded to a back page, and now more than two years later, the flood victims are more or less invisible as public attention moves on.
But, to those still awaiting resolution, the extended disruption makes it hard to focus on what to do next. It’s like there’s no end to the hoops they must continue to jump through. As an example. in 2016, to assist those without insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) automatically enrolled them in a three-year group flood insurance policy. That insurance policy is set to expire soon. If they don’t replace the insurance, the flood victims can never expect FEMA to help them out in the future. They also risk not being able to sell their homes if they bail out of the program.
According to Deputy Director Paula Brown with the Greenbrier County 911 Center, who serves as a hazard mitigation case manager, “It’s amazing how many people are still at a loss at what programs are available. Their problems are complex,” she said. “It is tough to keep them on track.”
Funded primarily through FEMA, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) offers four basic program options – property acquisition (or buyout), demolition and rebuilding, elevation, or relocation. Buyout is the only option open to people whose property is located in the flood-way.
State officials initially encouraged the homeowners to apply for some of West Virginia’s $69 million pool of hazard mitigation funds, according to a report in the Register-Herald. But, Brown said, the state has “flipped its priorities,” making high-profile public infrastructure projects first in line for funding. That means all 55 counties can apply for grants, making the homeowners who were hit hardest to be served last and unlikely to receive funding. “The mitigation funds will get eaten up pretty quickly,” Brown said.
In an interview this week, she said 41 properties in the county are awaiting approval for a FEMA buyout, 14 are seeking to rebuild and six are awaiting approval for flood plain elevations. “We received 13 percent of what we asked for from the state,” Brown said, noting that more than 30 homes are still awaiting demolition. These properties are in what Brown calls “over-subscription” status, meaning that all preliminary evaluations are completed, all assessments have been made and all the paperwork is filed. But as far as the state is concerned, nothing will be completed without more funding made available.
“FEMA is doing what the state says to do with the money. Acquisitions are at the very bottom (of the state’s priorities),” she said.
Last week when Brown appeared before the Greenbrier County Commission with an update on the construction progress of HUD’s RISE program, Commissioner Mike McClung asked her who is responsible for the priority shift, and Brown replied without hesitation, “Governor Justice.”
The Commissioners agreed to send a letter to the governor to explore priority modification options. If it weren’t for the faith-based out-of-state groups who came in and built those homes in Rainelle, Caldwell and White Sulphur Springs, Brown said, there might still be hundreds waiting for homes of their own.