Officials provide update on RISE WV progress

CHARLESTON — More than two years after devastating floods hit central and southern West Virginia, work is progressing on putting families into homes, state officials said on Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, provided an update on the progress of the RISE West Virginia program during a press conference Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“I am pleased with where we are at the 60-day point of us having taken this thing on,” Hoyer said. “By no means do I consider us to be in a position to pat ourselves on the back. We have lots of work to do and lots of stuff to keep moving on.”

According to the National Guard, 1,624 cases under the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster system have been closed out as of Wednesday. Under the RISE WV portion of the case management system, 435 cases remain.

“A lot of people have put blood, sweat, and tears, and a lot of effort making sure people were getting cared for,” Hoyer said. “We have to recognize those people, those groups, and what has occurred.”

Of those 435 cases, 163 are in reconstruction, 157 cases involve rehabilitation of existing homes, 109 cases are mobile home replacements and 49 cases are in the construction phase.

Hoyer said there are 17 cases where people are in homes and he expects that number to grow to 18 by the end of the week. The National Guard has been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on amending the state’s action plan to allow for purchase of double-wide mobile homes for larger families.

“It sounds like a simple thing, but I’m dealing with the state and federal bureaucracy, so it takes a while to get things done,” Hoyer said.

The state’s HUD action plan also needed amended to allow for sub-grants to agencies and organizations that can help in other areas of need, such as rehabilitation. The amended plan will allow volunteers with the Appalachia Service Project to help with the 157 rehabilitation projects. It will also allow the state to contract with other state agencies, such as the west Virginia Housing Development Fund

“We need to get a handle on that, pull it together and make sure we put them in the right places as we develop communities and make sure those people get taken care of,” Hoyer said. “(The Housing Development Fund) has that expertise to help us identify that and also put those pieces in place, which relieves some of the other pressure off of contracting pieces.”

The intergovernmental agreement between RISE WV and the Housing Development Fund will allow for projects beyond flood recovery, including economic development and infrastructure projects in the affected areas.

“You won’t see a multi-family unit being built tomorrow,” Hoyer said. “What you’re going to see is an analysis of us looking holistically across the governor’s plan for developing the state’s economy and communities, and within the region figure out how we best leverage that money to make sure we do the things he’s got envisioned for us to achieve from a redevelopment standpoint for these communities.”

Hoyer said that communication has been a focus, and with better efforts to engage with press, lawmakers, the State Auditor’s Office and other state agencies.

“We have the communication flow, I believe, at a point where if I’m in charge of an emergency response, I would tell you I’m happy with the flow of information that we have going,” Hoyer said.

Gov. Jim Justice appointed Hoyer on June 4 to oversee the RISE WV program after a three-month pause in the program when officials discovered problems with the way the state Commerce Department was bidding projects.

HUD awarded West Virginia disaster recovery funds totaling $149 million to rebuild or repair homes destroyed by flooding in June 2016. HUD granted spending approval at the beginning of February, but by Feb. 28 officials in the governor’s office called for an operational pause.

A legislative audit report accused commerce officials of entering into six illegal contracts with Horne LLP totaling $18 million. Commerce also entered into seven contracts with four construction companies for more than $71 million that were awarded before HUD approved use of the funds. HUD labeled West Virginia a “slow spender” for only spending $1.4 million of the $149 million.

Before Hoyer was brought in, two commerce employees left the agency. Woody Thrasher resigned as commerce secretary on June 14, and two more officials resigned from RISE WV June 22.

“We did the right thing,” Hoyer said of the operational pause. “I don’t think we hurt people, and I think as a result of what we are doing we are moving forward to take care of people.”