Over $8 million dollars is on the way to the town of Alderson for flooding mitigation.
At a press conference attended by representatives from municipalities across the Greenbrier Valley, Governor Jim Justice announced several massive grant awards looking to contain damaged similar to that caused by the flood of 2016. The town of Alderson was just one of these municipalities.
“Last but not least,” Justice said. “West Virginia Community Development Block Grant hazard mitigation. This is certified – this grant has been awarded to the town of Alderson, [totaling] $8,304,000.”
Alderson Mayor Travis Copenhaver, Recorder Betty Thomas, and several councilmembers, including Tod Hanger, Ann Eskins, and Doris Kasley all joined Justice for a photo with the grant award.
“I want to thank my council and my team, Copenhaver said, approaching Justice and calling council members to the stage. “We’re going to move our water plant out of the floodplain.”
|Councilmembers Tod Hanger and Ann Eskins, Recorder Betty Thomas, Governor Jim Justice, Mayor Travis Copenhaver, and councilmember Doris Kasley celebrate the over $8 million grant award.|
As mentioned to the governor, the newly acquired funds will go toward the water plant project, a concern Copenhaver has mentioned in public meetings since 2019. This is a similar reason to Town Council and Greenbrier County Schools’ wish to move Alderson Elementary School to the Alderson Community Center, as the building currently in use is also, partly, in the floodplain.
After the celebration, Copenhaver spoke to a few individuals, including The West Virginia Daily News.
“Now you’ve gotta figure out how to spend it,” joked one crowd member to Copenhaver.
“No, this is our water plant,” Copenhaver responded. “The award will completely cover the cost of our new water plant that will be out of the floodplain. This is that project, entirely, because of mitigation. [This will] mitigate future flood issues.”
Justice, after spending the day traveling across the state to deliver other grants, joked about being home in Greenbrier County.
“The reason we ended up in Alderson was because in Greenbrier County, we’ve got … six of these grants. You know, I’ll get a lot of trouble, if I keep showing up in Greenbrier County and giving away six grants like this.”
Justice also said the Greenbrier River at Alderson was special for him because he “caught the biggest smallmouth bass that I ever caught in the river right over there. It wasn’t very big but it’s the biggest one that I ever caught.”
|Representatives from multiple Greenbrier Valley municipalities were in attendance, such as Lewisburg, Rainelle, Ronceverte, and Rupert.|
|Officials from Alderson and White Sulphur Springs were also present.|
This is not the first time Alderson and the Greenbrier Valley are making water infrastructure something to talk about.
In 2019, a number of projects throughout Greenbrier County began in earnest, including an approximate $37 million water project in Lewisburg, the renewal of the White Sulphur Springs Tax Increment Financing district providing approximately $15 million primarily for water and sewer systems, Ronceverte’s $6.2 million water improvement project and upcoming $4.5 million sewer project, at least $3 million in planned upgrades and lines in Alderson, and the county’s expansion of water lines in Sam Black.
In order to pay for one such project, Alderson has raised water rates multiple times to take care of projects and price increases, such as in November 2019, when the second reading and public hearing for a water rate increase ordinance was held.
Although the room was relatively full, no one spoke in favor of or out against the increase during the hearing. Copenhaver stated his surprise at a lack of phone calls to city hall with questions or comments during the public hearing, but expected to receive them after the ordinance was passed.
“Everybody got, by mail, the change of the rates and what shocked me was … there’s still not that much grumble,” Copenhaver said. “That’s the other reason it’s not a stepped rate increase, … instead of [doing] a 12.5 [percent], then a 12.5 [percent], then a 12.5 [percent], my goodness by the time they get adjusted to the bill change in the first time, then they get it the second time. I’d rather do it one time and get it over with.”
The rate increases were passed, allowing the town to begin work on the over $6 million project.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this is going to fix 100 years worth of headaches and as we sit here today, red penning these, the people that are going to benefit from fire protection outside the municipality should really, really be thankful,” Copenhaver said in September 2020. “It’s going to make a difference – fire hydrants where we’ve never had fire hydrants, … replacing outdated fire hydrants that we can’t get parts for, but, more importantly, it’s going to end the loops and the problems we’ve had, especially down behind the Big Wheel and on Cedar Avenue, some of these places we’ve had major problems and inadequacies for years.”
“Typical” water infrastructure projects are not the only time the issue has been raised. In December 2019, Copenhaver announced that the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHS) would provide additional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to Alderson to assist in additional repair projects.
“Within the next week we will see the funds to complete the Monroe side that was awarded to the town of Alderson exclusively,” explained Copenhaver in December 2019. “We will not take out a loan and we will not have to pay a percentage. … As a result of documents, record keeping, and the hard work of a lot of people, they’re going to give Alderson the first grant that will pay for 90 percent of the disaster requested funds. So we’ll finish this side of the river without taking out a loan.”
This reduction in hazard mitigation costs from FEMA continued into 2020.
“We’ve been through everything we could to get the most bang for our buck with FEMA. We, by rights, should be paying 25 percent of $4 million,” Copenhaver said in August 2020. “… Alderson was the only FEMA award grantee [in West Virginia] to get an advance down to 10 percent instead of the 25 percent.”
After a meeting in early November between town officials in 2019, DHS Acting Deputy Director Louis Gaunch, and Director Michael Todorovich, Alderson received a letter noting its progress.
“It was highly informative and a welcome change to see a subrecipient be so cognizant of the overall process,” wrote Gaunch. “I was specifically impressed with the way you’ve handled the storm drainage with the duckbills. I’ve passed photos to the grant specialists in our office. You’re quickly becoming the example they are using for other still tending to same type of issues.
The need for hazard mitigation is self-evident, especially in Alderson. In June 2020, a flash flood poured through town, damaging homes and streets.
“We saw water running off Muddy Creek Mountain and Flat Mountain like none of us have ever seen before,” Copenhaver said in June 2020.
Most of the damage came in the form of flooded homes, wrecked infrastructure, lack of power, and road closures. The Alderson Volunteer Fire Department remained awake well into the night, pumping out basements until approximately 4 a.m. on Saturday, June 20.
“We have about 30 affected homes on the Monroe side and about 30 that we’re estimating on the Greenbrier side,” Copenhaver explained at the time. “The main thing has been water damage in basements. There’s potential for about seven to be condemned on the Monroe side. … The homes weren’t damaged badly enough that anyone was misplaced [and] had to go [to the town’s community shelter. Some stayed] with family or somewhere else for the night, most all stayed in their residences.”
That flooding, although devastating to the sum of over $1 million, was ultimately declined for federal disaster assistance through FEMA. In order to qualify for a Federal Disaster Declaration, the damages must surpass $2.8 million. Homes and town infrastructure damages were estimated between $500,000 to $700,000 and the Department of Highways estimates approximately $900,000 in damages.
“Our hopes were that the three counties (Monroe, Summers, and Greenbrier) highways damages and our local damages would put us over the necessary amount. That is not the case,” Copenhaver wrote. “The positive side is, damages were not that bad. The negative is that the town and those people who have loss/damages won’t be able to receive FEMA assistance.”
These floods can also compound, as was the case for a home volunteers cleaned on July 27, 2020.
“Today you guys are going to help me clean up some flood debris. We had a woman who had five feet of water in her home in 2016 and two feet of water in this flooding event,” explained then-Long Term Recovery Coordinator Kayla McCoy to a group of volunteers from the Lewisburg United Methodist Church.. “It was never properly cleaned out after 2016 flood, so please, please, please, wear those N-95 respirators.”
However, the town has also had issues with federal funding in the past, similar to towns across southeastern West Virginia in the wake of the 2016 flood, which was declared a federal disaster.
In February 2019, Council discussed FEMA money. According to Copenhaver, the city was short changed approximately $1.2 million of FEMA funds set to finance ongoing 2016 flood repair and mitigation projects.
“Just so everybody understands, we had a single audit for the FEMA funds, so that means that every dollar that we’ve been held accountable for got audited by our independent auditor,” Copenhaver said. “What we realized [is], and you all have heard me gripe and complain and fuss and cuss, that … we’ve had some issues.”
After some communication, the FEMA team and Alderson city officials “realized we had a problem,” and General James Hoyer, the overseer of the West Virginia RISE program, sent a representative to help the city sort through the issues. The representative turned out to be a familiar face to the city; Al Whitaker, Grant Specialist at the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security Emergency Management and former Greenbrier County Emergency Management director, provided several documents Copenhaver and Council had been seeking.
“When I had an email saying a FEMA rep would be here, … I didn’t expect it to be Al,” Copenhaver said. “Al gave me, in 15 minutes, what we’ve been trying to get for a year.”
The documents provided allowed Copenhaver to begin to sort through the several project worksheets (PW), each showing huge discrepancies.
“One of the biggest things is Al helped me to realize … we’d been shorted some money, to the tune of $1.2 million,” Copenhaver said. “If everywhere in the state has the same mess that we’ve got, Al, I’m glad I ain’t got your job, buddy.”
Issues with FEMA funds continued until recently, with the town attempting to return money to the federal government. In August, a budget deficit had Copenhaver asking Town Council for something he’s “not comfortable asking for,” Copenhaver asked Town Council to authorize the transfer of $70,000 of these funds to get the town through the shortfall. At the time, the town still has approximately $200,000 worth of these funds in the bank.
Since then, FEMA has been in touch with the town, according to Copenhaver, finalizing paperwork needed to return the money, and Town Council agreed to rescind the transfer.
“First of all, we can’t take FEMA funds to pay bills that aren’t actually supposed to be paid. This [new proclamation] takes [the potential fund transfer] off the book,” Copenhaver said. “… FEMA will be receiving $175,983 dollars back as a result of this action. The initial payment was $237,948.95. We spent $61,965 to do sewer repairs. You all will remember that FEMA wanted us to replace the lift stations that were scheduled for demolition and then to basically give them back the scrap price after we did the project, which was an asinine waste of taxpayer dollars.”
For more on the grant award, see the Friday, November 5, edition of The West Virginia Daily News.