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2016 flood recovery exposed flaws in response

December 15, 2018
Jimmy Gianato, former director of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and now the governor's homeland security adviser, testifies to the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding on Nov. 27 at the state Capitol.

Who would turn down nearly $13 million to help people in the Elk River watershed and elsewhere recover from a devastating flood? Apparently the state of West Virginia would, and did.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Shana Clendenin, the mayor of the northern Kanawha County town of Clendenin, told state lawmakers Tuesday that she asked officials and legislators in November 2017 about a grant program that would provide $12.7 million for disaster management costs, but her request went nowhere.

She provided lawmakers with a letter she sent to Gov. Jim Justice stating that on Nov. 13, 2017, she met with Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Jeff Sandy; then-Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha; then-DHSEM Director Jimmy Gianato; and staff of both the governor and of U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

According to the letter, all parties discussed the available Federal Emergency Management Agency funds (referred to within Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as “Category Z” funds) specifically.

Of $13.8 million available, the state has applied for just $1.1 million in Category Z funding, according to a report from the Legislative Auditor’s office released Sunday.

Clendenin’s testimony came after revelations that FEMA penalized West Virginia for non-compliance by placing it under a “manual reimbursement” protocol — a punitive procedure the state shares only with Puerto Rico. Likewise, the audit found Gianato failed to inform the cabinet secretary of the sanction. Gianato has cited inadequate staffing as the root cause of poor sub-recipient monitoring that triggered the action, according to the Gazette-Mail.

There, Gianato, who directed DHSEM for 13 years, initially said he was “somewhat” aware of the available funds after they were described to him. He said it was his understanding the state would have about $8 million or $9 million available, although he went on to say it could potentially have been as much as $11 million available.

The West Virginia National Guard has since taken on an oversight role of DHSEM. When asked whether Gianato would continue in his advisory capacity, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer said in the next 30 to 60 days there would be a “transition of staffing.”

In an interview Tuesday, Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, told the newspaper that Gianato — who is no longer the DHSEM director but is still on the state payroll as the governor’s homeland security adviser — not applying for the money was “bewildering” and he should have known about it.

The state’s handling of the 2016 flooding recovery effort has been underwhelming to say the least. People who track insider politics in the Capitol wonder about Gianato’s future. Why has Justice kept him on the state payroll as these revelations mount, they wonder. People elsewhere wonder about what this means to them. When the next big spring or summer storm inundates a valley and forces hundreds of people from their homes, will the state be able to help them get their lives back in order, or will it bumble along, unable or unwilling to apply for every outside dollar available?

It’s easy to say the state’s handling of the Elk River disaster has been a disaster in itself, but that would be an insult to people who lost everything in the flood. What it has been is an indication that things have to change. The unfortunate thing is that we won’t know if they have changed for the better until the next disaster strikes.

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