Virginia lawmakers on Thursday sharply questioned the costs of the state’s preparations for Hurricane Florence, saying they were shocked to learn officials committed to spend up to $60 million to set up shelters and deploy response teams for a storm that ultimately veered south.
Members of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration have stood by the decision to order the first-ever mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas, saying it was a call based on scientific predictions about the potential path of a storm that had minimal impacts in Virginia but devastated eastern North Carolina.
At a Senate Finance Committee meeting in Richmond, some lawmakers demanded a more detailed accounting of costs they called “shocking.” Several Republican senators acknowledged their questions could be seen as second-guessing decisions made in crisis, but they said the price tag alone warrants further scrutiny.
As of Thursday, the state had spent roughly $44 million of the $60 million authorized.
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne told legislators the state had to hire a Texas-based company, DRC Emergency Services, to assist with hurricane response because in-state vendors who already have relationships with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management were unable to provide the services needed.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, pointed Thursday to the costs associated with standing up disaster response teams. According to financial estimates, it cost an estimated $693,308 to have a 30-person hazmat team on standby for two weeks, including paying for the team’s meals and lodging.
“Where in the world are they sleeping? And what in the world are they eating to cost in excess of $20,000 for two weeks?” Stuart said. “Somebody’s gouging us. Those costs ... shocking is one word. Unconscionable is another.”
State officials have said they’ll eventually get most of the money back through reimbursements from the federal government, and Layne said the state worked to defray some of Virginia’s costs by redirecting some of its resources to the Carolinas.
Several Democratic senators said they were glad state agencies were proactive and did everything possible to prepare for what could have been a major disaster.
“A week ago we were all terrified about what might happen to our commonwealth,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “And I believe everyone used the best available information about what was likely to happen.”
At an estimated cost of more than $31 million, the three shelters set up at Christopher Newport University, the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University to house and feed 5,775 people for at least seven days were the state’s biggest hurricane-related expense.
The evacuation order affected roughly 245,000 people. The shelters took in 52 people.
The Newport News and Williamsburg shelters, which were scheduled to begin operations last Wednesday, cost a combined $20.1 million, according to a purchase order provided by VDEM.
The VCU shelter, which was supposed to be ready to accommodate 2,064 people by midafternoon Sept. 13, cost $11 million, but never opened to the public.
The state’s contract
According to the state’s contract with DRC Emergency Services, the shelters had to provide blankets, cots and pillows; four meals per day, consisting of a hot breakfast, a box lunch, hot dinner and midnight snack; showers, toilets and towels; and generators to power the mobile equipment.
Combined, those services would cost $650 per person per day, according to the company’s pricing, or $4,550 for a week’s stay in a shelter.
Even though few evacuees used the shelters, the company’s contract specified that the shelters would be set up for “full capacity” because the company had to have the food and other supplies in place.
The signed agreement on DRC letterhead seems to suggest a rush to get the shelter plan in place. The company noted that services on the first day of operations could be “choppy.”
“Unfortunately, with 36 hour notice, this is the best we can do,” the document says. The company declined comment, deferring to state officials.
Several lawmakers questioned whether the need to find a new contractor during an emergency pushed the costs higher than they would have been under pre-existing price agreements.
“That’s truly supply and demand. You want it, you pay for it,” said Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg. “And it looks like that’s what we got stuck with.”
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, asked if negotiating during a “moment of crisis” meant the state paid “accelerated prices.”
Layne said he assumes the process led to higher prices, but he couldn’t give an exact dollar amount.
The second-biggest expense was an estimated $20 million to pay two Virginia-based urban search and rescue teams for 10-day missions.
Dance said lawmakers were lucky to be discussing dollars spent instead of lives lost.
“Our plan looks like it’s been on the shelf too long. We had to pull it out. It wasn’t good,” Dance said. “We can do better.”
“It’s the first time it’s ever been executed with an evacuation and standing up the shelters,” Layne said. “I’m sure it was an expensive lesson. We’ll go back and make sure ... that we did it right. But I am very comfortable with the decisions. And that we were prepared.”