By Penny Loeb
In the months since tiny Richwood, West Virginia, saw its worst flood last year, residents have been trying to clean up and recover their losses. But the town now faces losing what many consider to be the heart of the community – its top-ranked high school and adjacent middle school.
Under a relocation and consolidation plan, approved in March by the Nicholas County Board of Education, students would have to travel nearly 30 miles, over curvy mountain roads, to a complex of five schools in Summersville because Federal Emergency Management Agency funding does not require damaged facilities to be rebuilt in the same place – or even the same community. The funding comes through a pilot program created after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
The schools were damaged after nearly 9 inches of rain fell in a brief period across 12 West Virginia counties last June, killing 23 people. No one died in Richwood, but 80 homes were destroyed and 100 were damaged, said Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber.
“This consolidation has taken the PTSD of the 1,000-year flood to a new level of hell. It is a death warrant for the city,” Baber said. “We are suffering egregiously because FEMA’s mission to restore the impacted community is being perverted by the use and abuse of the alternative procedures. How many other communities will be this violated by this program?”
The Public Assistance Alternative Procedures pilot program, was enacted as part of the 2013 Sandy Recovery Improvement Act. It was created to expedite recovery and save money by paying an upfront lump sum, but not cost overruns. A pending federal civil rights case in New York alleges the program prevented a hospital, demolished by Hurricane Sandy, from being rebuilt because it allowed FEMA to fund another hospital’s expansion 7 miles away. The Nicholas County school consolidation and the New York hospital expansion are two of 16 projects that cost more than $50 million under this pilot program. The school consolidation would cost an estimated $130 million.
While recovery experts support the attempt to save FEMA money, disaster-impacted communities have found their vital public institutions relocated without residents being given an opportunity to voice concerns or, in some cases, explanation of FEMA’s alternative procedures. While negotiating relocation contracts with governments and nonprofits, FEMA does not allow public comment.
The Sandy Act also eliminated the requirement, under the original 1988 Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, that required a government or nonprofit to “determine that the public welfare would not best be served by repairing, restoring, reconstructing, or replacing any public facility.”
Richwood residents contend most of the money for the consolidated complex comes from FEMA funding for their schools. So they want them rebuilt in their town. Without the schools, they fear their city of 2,000 at the edge of the Monongahela National Forest could become another one of America’s “forgotten places.”
“It’ll be just another spot in West Virginia, left to disappear,” said Bonnie Bailey Kroll, who ran a local emergency distribution center after the flood. “Without a school here, property values drop. Businesses lose income or just have no reason to come into this side of the county. The town has been through a great tragedy, but with that tragedy it has a chance to revitalize itself. New business opportunity, new homes. Why strangle that by taking the schools away?”
Richwood High School is recognized as one of the best in the state, even though 66 percent of the 388 students are economically disadvantaged. Its marching band, the Lumberjack Express, has performed across the country, including at the Kentucky Derby and Disney World.
Former and current students have argued online and at public meetings to keep the schools in Richwood.
“I see the Board claiming that they have the students’ interest in mind, but looking into a student’s eyes is nothing compared to looking through a student’s eyes,” Derek Rexrode, who graduated seven years ago, wrote on the “I am Richwood” Facebook page. “What I’m trying to say it’s not always better to be bigger. In a bigger school, a kid like I would be miserable and feel lost, forgotten and left behind.”
Schools play a central role in small rural communities, said Mara Casey Tieken, author of the book “Why Rural Schools Matter.”
“They can be a really important social hub, the place people get together for basketball games,” she said. “Oftentimes in a small community, they are the largest employer, so they bring good steady jobs with benefits.”
Immediately after the flood, Nicholas County Board of Education President Gus Penix hired a company to clean up the Richwood schools, as he had done after a flood in November 2003. But the board learned that FEMA would not fund repair of the schools as it had in 2003 because they are in the floodway. Middle and high school students were transferred to two Richwood elementary schools, where temporary classrooms were added.
In response to a request for relocation sites by the school district, at least six sites in or near Richwood, including two lumber yards and a farm, were suggested by local residents and supporters of the school, former board member Barb Taylor said. But the board did not say which sites were studied by its engineer, or the study results. None are in a floodplain.
The most recent report on the consolidation states it will provide a greater variety of classes and save money in a cash-strapped district with declining population.
“I’m just so sorry that flood ever occurred,” Penix said. “I would love nothing more than to have schools (in Richwood). But we are a countywide school district and we have to consider everything, all our kids in our county, how we are educating them and how we can best give them the quality, thorough and efficient education.”
FEMA began the recovery process in late July with a meeting with school officials who were given information on every available program, said Scott Carr, a FEMA official working in West Virginia. However, correspondence with FEMA shows the board quickly decided to relocate the Richwood schools.
On Sept. 2, Carr emailed Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick, “After a long internal discussion we have identified an opportunity for Nicholas County Schools to excel. Light years from the other schools and the state,” he wrote. On Sept. 9, the board of education requested relocation of the Richwood schools from the director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, according to a FEMA Region 3 spokesman.
Richwood residents knew nothing about these negotiations. Instead they packed public hearings in March on consolidation and wrote hundreds of letters to state and federal officials.
“The process in West Virginia has been quite frustrating,” said former Richwood Mayor Jeromy Rose, who headed the team in charge of “all aspects of recovery,” except schools.
“FEMA has a special team that worked exclusively with the board of education,” Rose said. “We tried the second best thing and that was to try to communicate with the board members. Every request for any one of them to come meet with our team was denied. Furthermore, at no meetings was a representative from FEMA ever made available to us.”
Richwood residents brought a lawsuit filed Feb. 15 against the board of education, alleging that it violated open meeting laws by not publicly disclosing their consideration of consolidation last fall, and use of the alternative procedures pilot program. The judge in that case blocked demolition of the Richwood schools. If consolidation moves forward, Richwood residents say they will file an environmental justice lawsuit.
Richwood’s consolidation struggle echoes a federal civil rights case filed last year in New York. Long Beach Medical Center on Long Island was destroyed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. But instead of rebuilding the hospital, about $154 million in FEMA funds will be used mostly to expand the South Nassau Communities Hospital, a successor in the Long Beach 2014 bankruptcy, 7 miles away, on the mainland. The 162-bed Long Beach hospital will replaced by a $40 million three-story medical pavilion.
Long Beach lost 1,200 jobs and half the primary care doctors when the hospital closed, Dr. Martin Gruber, a plaintiff, said. Long Beach is a barrier island, with one drawbridge on the direct route to South Nassau. Sixteen percent of Long Beach residents are 65 or older, and many don’t drive. They need a hospital near their homes, Gruber said. A smaller hospital would be profitable and provide all necessary services, which the medical pavilion would not, plaintiffs said.
Similar to the secrecy in Richwood, Long Beach residents did not know for several years that FEMA and South Nassau had agreed to funnel funding into the expansion. Francis McQuade, their attorney, argues that FEMA has not required the applicant, South Nassau, to determine the public welfare impact of the loss of the hospital.
“If both cases (Long Beach and Richwood) are successful and policies are reviewed,” McQuade said, “I think they would make a stricter interpretation to be sure money allocated is not used uselessly. Truly, one of the purposes of lawsuits is to encourage policy. The words are ‘restore, repair, replace.’ I don’t see that in Richwood at all, and I don’t see it in the Long Beach matter either.”
This story was edited by Jennifer LaFleur and copy edited by Nadia Wynter.