People in West Virginia’s Nicholas County received good news last week when the Federal Emergency Management Agency released about $132 million to rebuild schools that had to be demolished following the June 2016 flood.
A few months ago, in November, FEMA released $52 million to rebuild Herbert Hoover High School in Kanawha County, which also had to be razed following the 2016 floods. Site preparation work for the new school has begun.
Meanwhile, plans are still being formulated for the new schools in Nicholas County, according to an article by Ryan Quinn in The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Nicholas County school officials hope construction on the new schools there can begin this spring. Construction could take 3 ½ years, which would schedule the new schools for opening in 2023 — seven years after the flood.
Having the money released is good news, but it raises a question: Why does it take bureaucracy so long to release money to meet a critical need?
It’s like the problem West Virginia state government had with the RISE program. Red tape can slow things down to a crawl when immediate help is needed.
When the floods hit in 2016, volunteers in the private sector were mobilizing before the waters went down. People donated cleaning supplies, heavy equipment and their own labor to help those affected worst by the flood.
To be fair about the schools, finding a place out of the floodplain to build a school or any building of appreciable size can be difficult in most of West Virginia. Most building is done in flood plains because most real estate is vertical or nearly so. Larger communities benefit from floodwalls. Smaller communities usually cannot justify the cost, and federal regulations prohibit building large public works in unprotected floodplains.
Placing a new school on a mountaintop, as is happening with Hoover, means months of site review and planning before land can be purchased, and that must be followed by months of preparing the site and building an access road.
It’s a long process that cannot be rushed, and FEMA’s not going to release money until local officials have performed their due diligence, which includes complying with FEMA regulations. But three and a half years?
The first school year after the flood, Herbert Hoover students shared a building with the middle school at Elkview. The next year, they moved into portable units on stilts near the middle school. The new Herbert Hoover is scheduled to open in fall 2022, so this year’s graduating class will be the first of three to graduate without having attended classes in their permanent building.
The amount of damage in different parts of southern West Virginia in 2016 could be a factor in the delay in recovery. And if you’re building new schools that will be in service for decades, you want to plan the curriculum of the future. So yes, things take time, but they should not take this much time. There has to be a better and faster way to recover from a disaster.
The word “disaster” literally means “ill-starred,” as if the stars had decided to inflict woe upon an area. The stars aren’t holding up the work here. Between RISE and FEMA, people are justified in wondering if maybe there’s too much paperwork involved in putting their lives back together after a natural disaster.