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Plan to Shelter People From Storms Leaves Taxpayers’ Wallets Exposed
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRichmond – "Better safe than sorry” and "Always be prepared,” are good mottos to live by, especially when forced to anticipate unpredictably dangerous circumstances. That certainly was Governor Ralph Northam’s approach during Hurricane Florence.

But it left the commonwealth with a record $60 million bill, and most of it — $43 million — was spent on three evacuation shelters that housed 52 people. The shelters, set up at Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, were equipped to house and feed 6,000 people for a week.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Services opened them as part of the state’s emergency plan that was put into action when Northam issued a first-ever mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas. The problem was timing. According to a report VDEM itself issued only 13 months ago, it takes five days to set up such shelters, but storm forecasts cannot accurately pinpoint a hurricane’s track that far out. Its path comes into focus closer one or two days prior to landfall. The report called into question the plan’s cost, calling it "unfeasible,” but a call had to be made and Northam made it.

Not to worry, though, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. The federal government, via FEMA, will reimburse Virginia for a little more than $32 million. That doesn’t mean state lawmakers are pacified. Many, including Delegate Chris Jones (RSuffolk), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, are puzzled over how the tab got so high and said as much during a recent presentation by Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne to the committee.

The commonwealth found itself in a vice because of the urgency of the situation. It contracted with DRC Emergency Services, which set up the shelters within 24 hours at a cost of $650 per evacuee (based on 5,775 people). The plan called for state agencies to staff the shelters. However, the state doesn’t warehouse the supplies necessary for housing that many people over that length of time. It’s not cheap and only gets more expensive when extreme weather conditions put their price at a premium.

The problem just isn’t the problem. A major reason a solution hasn’t been found is that localities and the state don’t share data well, hampering opportunities to coordinate, decentralize and bring in non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross, a suggestion from the 2017 VDEM study. Typically, a bill requiring localities to share such information was signed into law this year but the first reports won’t be compiled until 2019.

That leaves Virginians subject to another hurricane season next year before officials can fine tune the emergency plan. While the current version may offer protection from a storm, it doesn’t do much to shelter taxpayers’ wallets. Here’s hoping a new plan will protect both.

Stephen J. (Steve) Rossie is a Richmond-based public and government relations’ consultant. He has been a General Assembly lobbyist since 2006 and has written about Virginia government since 2007.


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