FEMA Loophole Leaves Communities at Risk

FEMA Loophole Leaves Communities at Risk

A disaster-relief program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) promises greater flexibility in rebuilding damaged towns and cities, but instead often allows for the diversion of resources from those communities.

FEMA’s Public Assistance Alternative Procedures pilot program, created by the 2013 Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, is designed to provide “substantially greater flexibility in use of federal funds,” with “far less administrative burden.” But a loophole allows essential public buildings to be rebuilt far from impacted areas, or abandoned entirely.

The first beneficiary of Alternative Procedures was Vermont’s state government, which utilized FEMA funding to rebuild offices for state employees outside a flood plain. But in Long Island and West Virginia, some residents claim that the misallocation of FEMA funds has jeopardized their communities’ livelihood and health.

In 2014, in Long Beach, New York, the South Nassau Communities Hospital acquired the Long Beach Medical Center for less than $12 million after the medical center filed for bankruptcy following its destruction in Hurricane Sandy. SNCH received $154 million from FEMA to rebuild the center and restore health services in the Long Beach area. Instead, SNCH put almost all the money into restoring its own facilities, five miles away from Long Beach. Long Beach residents have filed suit in federal court, claiming their equal protection rights were violated.

This past year, following massive flooding in West Virginia, the Nicholas County school board voted to consolidate the damaged middle and high schools of Richwood with schools in Summersville and Craigsville, a plan costing $130 million in FEMA funding. Some students from the three towns, which have a combined population of less than 8,000, would have to commute for almost an hour on twisting mountain roads to a new, centralized facility.

Many Richwood residents were angered by secret negotiations between the school board and FEMA that led to the decision to consolidate rather than rebuild local schools: Richwood High School, considered one of the best in West Virginia, is noted for its marching band and high graduation rate. “The whole town is hung on these schools,” says Mayor Bob Henry Baber.

“I think the flood and the fight for the schools has been such an intense struggle that it has … superseded any other political affiliations,” Baber adds, noting that Democratic Governor Jim Justice favors rebuilding the schools. In June, the West Virginia Board of Education sided with Richwood residents, rejecting the consolidation plan and ordering the county to consider alternatives. The Nicholas County school board promptly sued the state.

While some communities have sought Alternative Procedures funding because of its perceived flexibility, the reality for towns like Richwood and Long Beach can be a loss of local control—and essential funds.