Hurricane Florence was about 48 hours away when the Virginia Department of Emergency Management did something it had never done before, something a prior government report called costly and “unfeasible.”
With tropical force winds swirling toward Hampton Roads and its 1.7 million residents, emergency officials initiated a state-managed shelter plan for the first time as Gov. Ralph Northam ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas, another first for the state.
The shelters at three universities in eastern Virginia were set up to house and feed almost 6,000 people for at least a week as state officials braced for a potentially catastrophic event.
An October 2017 VDEM report on Virginia’s sheltering readiness highlighted the risks of that approach, concluding that state-managed shelters were “unfeasible as pre-landfall evacuation shelters” because they typically require at least five days to open.
“Because hurricane forecast models are highly uncertain five days before landfall, it is unwise to activate a shelter plan at that time that could cost the Commonwealth between $4-60 million or more,” the report said.
Florence veered south. Only 52 people used the shelters, established by a Texas contractor that struck a hasty deal with the state to do the logistical work for about $31 million. At multiple budget hearings over the past few weeks, some Virginia lawmakers have questioned whether the Florence expenses were unreasonably high. In total, the state committed an estimated $43.4 million to storm preparations, most of which will be reimbursed by the federal government.
The Northam administration has stood by the state’s hurricane response, saying the state acted decisively, erring on the side of caution to keep people safe from a serious storm that spawned several tornadoes and led to multiple deaths. But with several post-hurricane reviews underway, the unprecedented preparations for Florence could lead to a re-examination of the state’s shelter plans.
Payment on hold
The General Assembly scrutiny led the state’s top finance official to put a hold on payment to the contractor, Galveston-based DRC Emergency Services. The contract was struck under VDEM’s emergency procurement powers, and some of the paperwork wasn’t finalized until the week after the storm hit.
“I just wanted to make sure that we had gone through and verified everything,” said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, who is scheduled to update lawmakers on hurricane spending Thursday.
In a recent interview at the agency headquarters in Chesterfield County, VDEM Director Jeff Stern said there may be a better way to make sure Virginians have somewhere to go the next time disaster threatens. But until VDEM has another option, he said, the agency would make the same call.
“Yeah, it’s a really expensive cost. But we’re building the capacity for 6,000. And if the storm hit, that probably wouldn’t have been enough,” Stern said. “It’s like playing a game of chicken on the highway with an 18-wheeler.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the state for 75 percent of the shelter costs, leaving Virginia with a roughly $7.8 million shelter tab.
VDEM officials said they were working on a “compressed” timeline, with about 48 hours to make a move, with the National Hurricane Center predicting a severe impact on Virginia.
“We’re going to make the decision every time to put the maximum resources that we can muster to bear on it,” Stern said. “We didn’t buy $32 million worth of stuff. We ordered up a service. That’s what it costs. And we would have to do it again today.”
Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, N.C., around 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 14. Agency documents reviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed VDEM officials discussing contracting options for state-run shelters on Sept. 10.
On Sept. 12, the state announced it was opening two shelters, one at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and another at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. The contractor set up a third shelter in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center, but that shelter never opened to the public.
DRC Emergency Services, which already had a contract with VDEM to provide base camps, and its sister company SLS, set up the shelters within 24 hours, charging a rate of $650 per evacuee per day for 5,775 people. The facilities were equipped with kitchens to provide evacuees with four meals per day, as well as portable showers and toilets.
‘A massive operation’
Photos of the VCU shelter that was never used show the arena floor covered with neatly arranged cots and boxes of supplies stacked against the retracted bleachers. A street outside was lined with trailers.
“It’s a massive operation, because this can be set up as easily in a tent in the middle of a desert as it can in VCU’s gymnasium,” said John Scrivani, VDEM’s deputy director for disaster services. “If the storm blows through there and there’s no power, we still have to operate.”
Though the contractor was responsible for shelter logistics, the state plan calls for the shelters to be staffed by the Department of Social Services, the Department of Health, Virginia State Police and the Virginia National Guard.
University space is readily available, but the state doesn’t keep a large stash of shelter supplies. The need to quickly obtain supplies that might be in demand in other states, Stern said, forced the state to enter into a shelter services contract.
“I would love to find a better way to do it where the state or the localities do have the commodities,” Stern said. “But it still is going to cost us $20 to $25 million to build that cache of commodities on our own.”
Virginia has tried to obtain a prearranged shelter contract that could be activated in a crisis for a potentially lower cost. But because those companies could face significant legal risks if they couldn’t deliver as promised within a matter of days, VDEM found no takers.
“We’re reaching out to the Halliburtons of the world and the KBRs, and they’re saying, ‘We’re not touching that,’” Stern said.
The risk to contractors also complicated VDEM’s in-the-moment response to Florence.
Deployed Resources, a New York-based contractor, told VDEM the job was too risky.
“We can not do this,” Deployed Resources Vice President Richard Cheek wrote in an email to a VDEM official. “The risk of shelters in this short a time frame and other risk factors the company leadership said no.”
Like other states, Virginia began reassessing its disaster preparedness after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The state has conducted several reviews of shelter capacity, and VDEM added a sheltering coordinator a few years ago. But efforts to obtain a full picture of the state’s shelter capability have been hampered by a lack of data-sharing between the state and localities. This year, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring localities to provide sheltering data to the state each year, but the first reports aren’t due until 2019.
After outlining the pitfalls of state-managed shelters, the 2017 VDEM report presented a possible solution that would rely on better coordination, with localities working together to set up regional shelters that could be supported by the state if necessary.
Stern pointed to the new tiered evacuation zones in coastal Virginia — which allow state and local authorities to coordinate a unified response that can adapt to changing conditions — as an example of what could be done with sheltering.
“We need a similar, flexible set of tools with the local and state sheltering models so that we can really truly save these high-cost things for the worst-case scenarios,” Stern said.
Though the state set up its own high-capacity shelters, a network of smaller, locally managed shelters drew more Hurricane Florence evacuees. According to VDEM estimates, 400 to 600 people used shelters set up by almost 60 localities. Many local governments have shelter agreements with the American Red Cross, which provides free disaster relief powered by volunteer labor and charitable donors.
Jonathan McNamara, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said the organization mobilized about 400 volunteers to support 18 shelters for Florence.