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Editorial: State falls short on FEMA’s disaster-recovery rules

November 14, 2018

You might think a state that has suffered as many natural disasters as West Virginia has these past two, three or four decades would have the recovery routine down pat — no glitches, no worries, no problems.

As the recovery efforts from the 2016 flood along the Elk River showed, this is not the case. At a legislative interim committee meeting Sunday, another problem came to light when the Legislative Auditor’s office issued a report showing the federal government has been frustrated with the state for several years, starting long before the current administration was in office.

Specifically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has had problems with the state’s handling of disaster recovery money since 2016 and earlier. The state’s Department of Homeland and Emergency Management hasn’t handled FEMA’s requests for information in a timely manner, the legislative auditor’s office found.

It seems that Jimmy Gianato, who headed the state office for more than a decade until last month, knew of the FEMA sanctions as far back as 2015, but no one above him in the chain of command at the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety knew.

Gianato was appointed to that post by then-Gov. Joe Manchin in 2005, around the time Manchin began his first term. Gianato resigned last month but has stayed on as an advisor.

What all this means is that West Virginia is now on FEMA’s manual reimbursement plan, where the state must spend recovery money up front, bill FEMA and wait up to 90 days to determine whether FEMA will reimburse it for expenses of $100,000 or more, according to Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred.

The official description of this is “deficiencies in internal control and management.” From the outside looking in, an unofficial description would be “yet another reason to question whether the state can handle a disaster.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice removed Woody Thrasher as his secretary of commerce because of problems with the recovery efforts from the 2016 flooding. Since then, the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety has been overhauling disaster response procedures. Gianato’s job change may have been part of this.

The state and FEMA are working on a plan so the state can meet FEMA’s requirements for a more timely handling of disaster aid. That is the bare minimum.

The plain fact is that West Virginia is on its own now should another disaster strike. Have enough changes been made in Charleston? Have the right people been held accountable?

We might not know until we are hit with the next flood, the next snow storm or the next derecho.

These facepalm moments are getting tiresome when mistakes at the state level affect people in the months and years after disasters. It’s up to Justice to get this corrected so that when the next disaster strikes, we won’t be talking about this again.

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