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W.Va. Lawmakers to Review Draft Disaster Planning Legislation

CHARLESTON — A legislative committee, studying how to limit damage from the next big flood, could have legislation drafted by November.

Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, and Brian Abraham, general counsel to Gov. Jim Justice, both said a bill is in the works to address concerns over disaster planning since the floods of 2016.

“There have been discussions with our emergency management folks and the state and Homeland Security on solutions.,” Jeffries said. “Those solutions have been submitted and our counsel has looked at them.”

Progress has been made during recent meetings with the joint committee, Abraham said.

“For that reason, we have worked with them on drafting some proposed legislation that they could come out with as a committee,” he said. “I think that would go a long way to trying to clear these problems in the future.”

While specifics are unavailable, the draft legislation would address state purchasing rules that have slowed down progress on rebuilding or renovating homes destroyed during the 2016 floods.

Two previous attempts at similar legislation during the special session in June and July were put on hold while lawmakers considered the implications.

According to the West Virginia National Guard, as of Oct. 18 there are 403 active cases in RISE West Virginia, a program using $149 million in Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to put 2016 flood victims back in housing. Of that number, 349 cases have been assigned to a contractor or subcontractor, with 254 cases requiring complete reconstruction.

As of Oct 1, West Virginia remains on HUD’s “Slow Spender” list for states that spend 10 percent less than the monthly pace required to fully use the grant by its target closeout date. Of the $149 million grant, West Virginia has a balance of more than $132 million, with the average of the last three months of spending at more than $429,000. State disaster recovery officials have blamed the state’s strict purchasing rules and HUD red tape for the speed of spending.

“We know we have a lot to make up for and some of the past problems that have gone back many years, digging out from under a lot of paperwork problems to issues with regard to funding,” Abraham said. “We’re trying every day to figure out new ways to come up with being more efficient and cleaning up the mess.”

State officials, legislators and county emergency services leaders have spent the better part of the last 12 months debating on how to best organize to prepare for natural disasters and how to respond should the next disaster occur.

Issues discovered during the tenure of former Homeland Security director Jimmy Gianato led to the emergency services agency being placed underneath the West Virginia National Guard – both agencies underneath the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. An effort to make the arrangement permanent, but make the National Guard a cabinet-level agency was met with concern from county emergency services and 911 officials who wanted to see emergency services stay in Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Abraham said that the Governor’s Office has no intention to move the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management from beneath the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safet, and said similar legislation won’t be introduced in 2020.

“We know we had some concern from some of the county emergency service organizations, the way we had originally had it structured back last year,” Abraham said. “We don’t intend to offer that legislation again in that form. We’ve met with those stakeholders and we think we’ve got a way forward that that ensures that the emergency services side is very responsive to our county officials and that they likewise have a direct voice into the Governor’s Office.”

“The county emergency management folks have played a huge part in that and maybe in November we’ll be able to release a little bit,” Jeffries said. “Hopefully by our next meeting in November we’ll have something to put out before the committee, digest it, get input on it.

One part of the reorganization legislation that could return is the creation of the State Resiliency Office in the Governor’s Office.

“The path we chose to take was to not propose any legislation that created the office under the code, but rather that at some point the governor will hire someone that would just work in the Governor’s Office whose job it will be to coordinate the efforts on the side of the executive that would have the voice of the governor,” Abraham said.

As proposed, the State Resiliency Office would coordinate all state agencies in the event of a natural disaster or other emergencies. Jeffries said the office would also work on disaster mitigation to prevent or limit future disaster damage.

“Right now the (State Resiliency Office) plan is in development,” Jeffries said. “One of the things we’ve talked about with this new resiliency office is it’ll have a huge part in mitigation. We’re looking at things that other states have done and what they’ve done well.”

A request for comment from Dean Meadows, president of the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, was not returned by press time.

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