Hurricane Response Challenged By State Senators

Spending line items for $60 million state response to Hurricane Florence. Source: Secretary of Finance

On Monday, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne talked about the cost of Virginia’s response to Hurricane Florence with little controversy, and that was before the storm spawned a series of tornadoes striking Mecklenburg County and Metro Richmond.

Thursday, after Florence visited Virginia directly, he made the same presentation to another committee and suddenly ran into major push back. “Shocking” was the word used by Senator Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, who then admitted he was engaging in “Thursday morning quarterbacking.”

Under authority granted in state law and the budget, Governor Ralph Northam declared an emergency in Virginia on September 11 and authorized the expenditure of up to $60 million from state funds. He ordered an emergency evacuation in certain lowlands. Because his order followed a similar federal declaration, Virginia stands to recover up to 75 percent of the expense from federal funds, but only on a reimbursement basis up to two years from now.

Layne, who is known for loving to provide the details, added a chart listing the various plan elements and their authorized cost, reproduced above. Given the worst predictions didn’t come to pass for Virginia, only some of the funds were spent and the final accounting is not yet made.

It was some of those line items that generated the commentary in the Senate Finance Committee, especially three emergency shelters for 5,800 people at a possible cost of $32 million. Simple math pegs that at $788 per person per day, for shelter in state-owned buildings, not hotels. Questions also arose about $20 million authorized for two Virginia-based specialized rescue teams, based on a planned 10-day deployment, and other line items that appeared to include very generous amounts for food and lodging.

“Where in the world are they sleeping and what are they eating?” asked Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland. “Somebody is gouging us.”

Layne promised to follow up with itemized costs and promised that auditors would be going over the expenses later. He repeated that what was authorized was not the same as what got spent, and the lump sum amounts for some of those teams probably included pay, transportation and other expenses beyond food and lodging. Some of them were dispatched to North Carolina instead when it became clear Virginia was out of the bulls-eye.

Would it really bother you if this rescue team had been sent from Virginia?

Which prompted yet another question from McDougle about whether North Carolina ever does the same and provides help when Virginia needs it. Layne was firm in responding to that, saying during his time as Secretary of Transportation he knew of times when North Carolina helped Virginia and he thought the Department of Emergency Management could provide other instances.  Senator Bill Carrico, R-Galax, a former police officer, chimed in with some examples from his part of the state.  Nobody else questioned the Governor’s decision to offer help to our neighboring state.

“If we had had the devastation we all expected, we wouldn’t be questioning this,” said Senator Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg. And one of her fellow Democrats, Janet Howell of Fairfax, went to climate change and how “these storms are coming at us at a frightening rate” and the federal government needs to “work on the models.”

Virginia’s response to this threat was far more robust than previous examples, as further data from Layne showed. He listed 26 “events” going back to 2010, including other hurricanes, with a total emergency response authorization of only $71 million. The big differences came from the early decision to mandate evacuations (with more that could have followed) and to open those three major shelters. Some of the expenses were made as emergency purchases outside the state’s normal procurement.

There might be an element of damned if you do or if you don’t in this.  It was a badly-needed reality check and drill, with some lessons to be applied next time, because there will be a next time and we can all see what the Carolinas are now having to endure.  Governor, Mr. Secretary, send them anything they ask for and we’ll worry about payment later.

Follow up:  Details added in the Richmond Times-Dispatch story sparked by the same meeting.  The reporter got to see the invoice for the shelter contract.

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11 responses to “Hurricane Response Challenged By State Senators

  1. I think Layne was trying to be transparent – not without it’s risks when dealing with that audience and could, depending on who plays “messenger”, motivate those being raked over the coals to skip doing that thing next time!

    I’m sure that report is “available” without a special presentation!

    I also suspect that the cost of creating de-facto living space in a large building .. beds, food, sanitation, backup generator, security, as well as health needs and assistance for the infirm, elderly, kids, etc .. adds up but might be interesting to see the breakdown AND perhaps compare to the costs in other states.. is that cost a standard FEMA estimate or what?

    For that matter – I bet these same guys would be SHOCKED to see how much a typical fire/ems response costs… they’d probably want go go back to chucking folks in the back of GMC panel trucks… 😉

  2. It’s good for legislators to ask tough questions. But at this point I’m willing to give Northam the benefit of the doubt. Everyone needs to stay cool until Layne comes up with answers. It seems likely to me that the cost per person of the shelters was high because so few people wound up needing help that the fixed cost was spread over fewer people. If the hurricane had turned north and the facilities hadn’t been there, there would have been hell to pay.

  3. One of the big reciprocities on storm recovery measures is between the electric utilities. Lines of bucket trucks migrate toward storm damage manned by crews motivated to serve and based on the assumption that your need today will likely be mine tomorrow and hoping to do the right thing by customers – even someone else’s – and usually paid regular wages by their regular employers. And there is very little micro-management or accounting or repayment for this — the mutual benefit is so obvious that utility regulators generally don’t question the cost to the donors in individual years. I understand the questions to Layne aiming to find if NC really reciprocates when VA has helped them in the past — but it strikes me as outrageously narrow-minded and short-sighted.

  4. I added a link above to Moomaw’s story in the TD. It is clear the state paid “hurricane pricing” for a shelter management contract. Actually, Jim, the cost per person who showed up was like $600,000! But they would have been bursting with people had the storm come this way. I in no way question any of these decisions, given the forecast they were looking at. But next time they can have a better plan and a competitive bid contract for any outside services they need. I was troubled by the challenge to providing help to North Carolina. I would be troubled by anybody who really disagreed with that.

  5. No one should second guess the Governor for declaring an emergency. And legislators and the public should expect some of the prices paid to be ready would be fairly high. But at the same time, some businesses are known to engage in price gouging during emergencies. Whether that occurred and, if so, why, should be investigated.

    And leave it to Senator Howell to blame global warming for the first hurricane to hit North Carolina straight on in 40 years on climate change. I’d rather she focus on stopping the City of Alexandria from dumping raw sewerage into the Potomac weekly.

  6. Reminding you, the early weather forecasts were rather dire. They changed when the storm dodged into NC. Otherwise it could have been far, far worse.

    • Absolutely. The reasonableness of the cost cannot be based on what shelter was actually provided or needed. BUT, the lack of contingency planning for hurricanes in Hampton Roads in advance, the premium prices paid for last-minute emergency shelter arrangements, raise questions about lesser-cost shelter options for the future.

  7. Glad to read all the reasonable comments regarding the irresponsible discussion at the GA. Here is my question. I read that 14 Superfund sites in Virginia were impacted by Florence. They are all along the coast near VA Beach. What is that impact and what are we doing about them now and for the future? Some are probably coal ash?

    Here is the first tally from NC. It ain’t pretty and it has happened before.
    • The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that at least 23 public and private drinking water systems in North Carolina were not supplying water and that 21 others were operating with restrictions like a boil water advisory.
    • a power failure at a water treatment plant … untreated sewage had been released into the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers.
    • Lagoons containing pig waste sustained structural damage and 13 had overflowed, as of Tuesday afternoon.
    • As of Tuesday, 3.4 million birds had died and the state veterinarian estimated 5,500 pigs also were lost.
    • Sanderson Farms said an estimated 1.7 million chickens had been killed and they are unable to get feed to 6.3 million animals at farms blocked by flooding.
    • Over the weekend Duke Energy reported that about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash, the equivalent of about 140 dump truck loads, spilled out of a pond at an inactive power plant near Wilmington, North Carolina.

    • Yes, stuff happens. But certain stuff could reasonably have been prevented. How about those pig manure lagoons that were constructed in floodplains: were they grandfathered; are the criteria for new lagoons adequate for such locations? Similar questions about the water and human waste treatment facilities. Flood plains, of course, are flat and usually downhill from habitation and provide the best agricultural land — there is huge economic pressure to allow waste storage and treatment facilities to be built there (not on higher ground) subject to standard “precautionary measures” like dikes and flood gates — but Florence is a proper test of whether those standards (State? federal?) are anywhere close to adequate.

      I’m not as worried about the coal ash spill because it’s low toxicity by volume and the very nature of the cause, the storm rain, has brought extraordinary volumes of water to dilute the spill and wash it away. Subsurface leakage into the water table is a bigger and longer term problem IMO, especially with older, unlined ash pits. Just because a utility is involved it’s easy to pin blame, but that is no reason to disregard bigger problems in the agricultural sector.

      • I lived in NC in the late 90’s when the ‘pit issue’ was first talked about. Fact was no one wanted to pay. The best scientific work was done in the UNC university in Cary, but ….

        AND I was in Alaska for a visit right after the Exxon Valdez where the company hired and generously paid workers to stand on the oil soaked beaches and told them not to dig the oil because Exxon had no place to put it. Besides they said it would just wash away cause the ocean is so large. Well that didn’t happen, so I think both of your stated issues are a problem.

        I don’t know the answer but I guess “we gets what we pays for”.

    • At this very time, Fairfax County is considering a Comp Plan amendment that would consider allowing up to 8 units per acre on land that is not only in the flood plain but also in a Resource Protection Area in the Mount Vernon District. 2018-IV-MV2 is the case number.

      Staff opposed the amendment but, last March, our BoS, which frets about Climate Change, authorized the review and consideration of the amendment. On July 19, 2018, the Planning Commission deferred a vote on the amendment.

      Here’s what the local planning commissioner said (taken from the verbatim record posted online).
      Commissioner Clarke: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and my fellow Commissioners. And I want to thank the community and everyone that has come out and spoken tonight. We’ve heard some great testimony and in hearing my fellow Commissioners – you know, we’re missing the proposed text language that we would like to see and have time to review it a little bit more. And with the coordination of staff, I’d like to work with them more to come up with a plan and to – a way to move forward on this. So my motion, Mr. Chairman, would be TO MOVE THAT THE PLANNING COMMISSION CLOSE THE PUBLIC HEARING FOR PLAN AMENDMENT 2018-IV-MV2, WITH THE RECORD REMAINING OPEN UNTIL DECISION DATE OF SEPTEMBER THE 13TH.

      Give me a break and pardon my skepticism about government’s commitment to the environment and worry about higher water levels due to climate change. Not when a developer wants something.

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