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W.Va. Resiliency Fund Empty After Legislative Session

House Finance Committee Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, said the state was guarding against a potential clawback of $465 million as the reason a $50 million allotment for trust fund was omitted from the state House budget bill.

West Virginia Capitol Building
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
(TNS) - "Let's make the money work for us."

Seconds after setting that goal, in his eighth and final State of the State address Jan. 10, Gov. Jim Justice asked the state Legislature to provide $50 million for flood resiliency.

Justice's call came a year after the Legislature created a trust fund to prioritize nature-based flood protection and prevention solutions for low-income areas without allotting any funding for it.

After another regular legislative session ended at midnight on March 10, the trust fund is still empty.

House Finance Committee Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, cited guarding against a potential $465 million federal clawback as the reason a $50 million allotment for the state flood resiliency trust fund was omitted from the state House budget bill passed this month.

U.S. Department of Education officials told the Gazette-Mail they don't foresee recouping funding from the state. West Virginia has been seeking a waiver from the department's Maintenance of Effort requirements that mandate states maintain support for elementary, secondary and higher education relative to their overall spending to qualify for COVID relief funding.

Criss suggested support for the fund is among items that can be taken up during an anticipated special legislative session later this spring during a House floor discussion on the final day of the 2024 regular session.

"I think we need to get some money into that flood resiliency trust fund sooner rather than later," Delegate Evan Hansen, D- Monongalia, said on the House floor in response to Criss. "Fifty million dollars seems like a lot of money, but these are investments in making our infrastructure more resilient, our roads and bridges, things like that."

Late in the session, Pew Charitable Trusts, a global public policy organization, urged state lawmakers not to leave the flood resiliency trust fund empty.

"[I]t is vital the Legislature acts soon to invest in flood resiliency," Pew Charitable Trusts communications officer Jeff Billington said in a Feb. 27 email.

Pew Charitable Trusts worked on the legislation that created the flood resiliency trust fund last year, Senate Bill 677.

The law lists a $40 million potential — but not required — allocation. It allows the State Resiliency Office to employ additional staff as needed to carry out the duties of the office established in 2017 and responsible for protecting communities against extreme weather and other disasters.

Under SB 677, the state resiliency officer is to administer the already existing Disaster Recovery Trust Fund, which was removed from the jurisdiction of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

State Resiliency Officer Bob Martin told the Joint Legislative Funding Committee during a December interim legislative session his office probably could execute projects if it had what it was looking for in federal or state support, noting there was no money in either the flood resiliency fund or the Disaster Recovery Trust Fund.

In its call last month for the Legislature to contribute to the fund it created, Pew Charitable Trusts noted flood mitigation is more effective than flood recovery, citing research showing that every $1 invested in flood mitigation saves $6 in cleanup.

"Now, West Virginia lawmakers have a unique opportunity to support Gov. Justice's resilience funding proposal and help the state meet the challenges of current and future flood risk," Pew Charitable Trusts U.S. conservation senior officer Mathew Sanders wrote in an article published by the organization. "Investing in solutions now will spare communities and families significant costs — and heartache — for decades to come."

West Virginia's narrow valleys and steep slopes make it especially vulnerable to flooding impacts.

More than half of West Virginia's critical infrastructure — including fire, police and power stations — is at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding, according to a 2021 First Street Foundation study. West Virginia's share of critical infrastructure at risk of being inoperable due to flooding was higher than any other state's.

But West Virginia has grappled with more than just risk since a June 2016 flood killed 23 people and temporarily displaced over 2,000.

Since that flood through March 2023, the Mountain State suffered 1,136 more flood and flash flood events causing seven deaths and more than $35.6 million in property damage, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Floods are longer-term events that may last days or weeks, while flash floods are caused by heavy rainfall in a short period of time, usually under six hours.

Flooding is West Virginia's costliest and most severe natural hazard, according to the NOAA. Of West Virginia's 24 Federal Emergency Management Agency major disaster declarations since 2010, 19 were declared for severe storms and flooding events.

"Money spent on the front end to make this infrastructure more resilient is money that the state will ultimately save when floods occur," Hansen said.

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.


©2024 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)
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