State needs to shore up support after disasters
Disaster-level flooding is a fact of life in West Virginia, a state whose terrain is mostly steep mountainsides with narrow valleys. At least once a decade, we seem to be hit with storms that overwhelm the abilities of our small rivers to carry so much water away.
The most recent such event came in June 2016 across a wide swath of the Mountain State, from Clendenin and Elkview in the Elk River Valley north of Charleston over to Richwood in Nicholas County and as far north as Hundred in Wetzel County.
People in those regions are still catching up from those storms of three years ago. Many people in the Elk Valley who were promised new housing to replace what they lost are still waiting.
We have now learned that recovery efforts in some areas have been a feast for consultants, some of whom charged $355 an hour for their services to help small communities navigate the state and federal emergency response bureaucracies. According to a recent report in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, most of the consultants came from out of state. They told the governments they’d maximize their reimbursements from FEMA and streamline the process.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Richwood, a city of about 2,000 people, $3.1 million for recovery. City officials hired two firms for advice: Simmons Recovery Consultants, of New York, which received $222,000 and whose principal consultant’s rates reached $295 per hour; and Bill Hines, with Applied Emergency Management Services LLC, who made about $28,000 charging between $75 and $110 per hour.
Investigators from the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office, which investigated the use of FEMA funds in Richwood, called Hines’ consulting “well-intentioned” and stated that he knew the ways of FEMA, although it found he made critical mistakes.
Last month, the auditor’s office found that Richwood’s recovery effort “has been inhibited by personal greed, incompetence and a complete disregard of fiscal management.” As one example, Richwood received nearly $500,000 to repair its water intake. Rather than using the money for repairs, the city instead made a temporary fix costing about $400 and redirected the FEMA money to pay city officials’ salaries and other city debts.
State auditors said Richwood turned to consultants because “difficulties with the state’s administration, coupled with ill-prepared county offices of emergency services, left municipalities ‘overwhelmed and grasping for any lifeline that was tossed their way.’”
In a statement to the Gazette-Mail, West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer said no one mandated that Richwood and other communities hire consultants and that FEMA provides the same services at no cost.
The state auditor’s report suggested that the state establish a guidebook and mandate annual training for counties and municipalities relating to the management of public funds following an emergency. Hoyer said the state has made staffing and process changes to improve support capabilities with local communities.
No one expects small towns to have the expertise or the resources to deal with natural disasters. Even Charleston and Huntington might have trouble dealing with something of the scale that hit Elkview and Richwood. But the state showed after the 2016 floods that its own response has been inadequate, although steps are being taken to accelerate the recovery efforts.
Consultants will swoop in after any disaster, large or small, when money is there to be made. It’s up to the state to ensure it has the people and the ability to help these small towns so the need for hiring consultants is minimal or even nonexistent.