By Alex Thomas, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As frustrations continue over the delay involving new schools in Kanawha County, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., spoke Tuesday to a regional Federal Emergency Management Agency leader about construction plans and related obstacles.
Capito discussed with FEMA Region III Administrator MaryAnn Tierney the current situation surrounding Clendenin Elementary and Herbert Hoover High schools and why — more than two and a half years after the June 2016 flood destroyed both schools — work on new institutions is behind.
Capito’s conversation comes after local officials and state lawmakers voiced displeasure over the delay; state Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, blamed FEMA for holding up construction in a speech last week on the Senate floor.
“I needed to hear from her what is the real story with FEMA because FEMA’s the one who kind of looks like they’re getting the blame here,” Capito told MetroNews. “We talked about timelines and the different things they have to go through with the environmental assessment, property acquisition and all this.”
Kanawha County Schools officials announced this month the opening dates for the schools will likely be later than expected; the new elementary school could open by fall 2021 and the new high school by fall 2022, a year later than what officials previously stated. Clendenin Elementary school students have been sharing space at Bridge Elementary since the flood, while Herbert Hoover High students have lessons in portable classrooms on the Elkview Middle School property.
FEMA will likely pay for most of the related work.
Capito said the central issue seems to be communication between FEMA, public bodies and private firms. She added Tierney acknowledged in their conversation the need for improvements.
“They’re trying to clean that up where people can have a more transparent process where people can actually see where they are in the process and know how much further they have to go before they can break ground,” Capito said.
The senator has developed a relationship with FEMA related to disaster relief efforts across the state. She said FEMA’s initial response to the June 2016 flood, in which 23 people died, was impressive.
“They were there in less than 24 hours ready to go,” she noted. “Now, we’ve got this long-term residual damage. We have the money. I don’t want to see FEMA lay back. I want to keep their feet to the fire.”
When asked if she could address this issue through a legislative committee, Capito said she could press FEMA as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security if the agency does not improve its work.
“I don’t think that’s the direction I need to go. I just need to keep talking with them and sharing my concerns and making sure people who are on the ground are being heard and that this process has to move much faster than it has,” she said.
Capito spoke favorably of Tierney, saying the director has been to West Virginia on other flood recovery matters.
“She knows this project very well and I think is committed to it,” the senator said.
A meeting with Tierney is possible; according to Capito, such event would be held in West Virginia to allow the opportunity for community members to better understand plans for the schools.