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W.V. Lawmakers Consider Flood Risk, Disaster Strategy

Following storms that inundated West Virginia this summer, the state Legislature heard arguments that the state's flood protection plan, created in 2004, is outdated and insufficient for current conditions.

heavy raindrops falling on city during downpour
Shutterstock/Sergey Zaykov
(TNS) — West Virginia lawmakers have gotten a crash course on the state's high flood risk, millions in costs incurred during years of outdated flood protection and efforts to recoup some of that money back.

State flood response and risk management experts filled in the Joint Legislative Flooding Committee on the escalating safety hazards and financial burdens that floods have inflicted on West Virginians during a Sunday interim legislative session meeting.

Mathew Sanders, senior manager of flood-prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, cited a State Resiliency Office observation that only 14% of recommendations from the state's flood protection plan have been implemented.

The state's 365-page flood protection plan was last updated in 2004.

"So part of the consequence of not having effective priorities in place was that not a whole lot got done from that 2004 plan," Sanders said.

The State Resiliency Office, the Pew Charitable Trusts and SBP, a New Orleans-based disaster recovery nonprofit, sponsored a symposium held in Charleston in May attended by emergency response officials and flood experts from throughout West Virginia that focused on updating the plan. Pew Charitable Trusts is a global nongovernmental public policy organization.

Now the state is trying to get a federal disaster declaration for heavy rainfall events in recent months that cost millions of dollars.

State flood response and risk management experts filled in the Joint Legislative Flooding Committee on the escalating safety hazards and financial burdens that floods have inflicted on West Virginians during the meeting.

Matt Blackwood, deputy director of the West Virginia Emergency Management Division, said the state is trying to group storm events spanning July 12 through Aug. 15 as a single incident to allow the state to meet federal disaster declaration qualification thresholds.

Blackwood reported that two rainfall events in that time frame didn't meet state or county declaration thresholds, a requirement for a declaration that unlocks Public Assistance — support for county and municipal governments and other jurisdictions.

State officials are working with state climatologist and Marshall University associate geography professor Kevin Law and the National Weather Service on crafting a contention that it was all just one big storm.

"Our argument is the ground did not have time to desaturate," Blackwood said. "It was literally storm after storm after storm, and the water levels never had an opportunity to go down."

The thresholds are $2.92 million for the state and vary by population for counties, Blackwood said.

A July 12 rain event in McDowell County caused roughly $4.6 million in damages to water and wastewater systems, city parks, Berwind Lake and roads and bridges, far surpassing the county's declaration threshold, according to Blackwood.

Rain events from July 26 to August 1 caused damages in Fayette, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties totaling over $1.1 million and easily exceeding those counties' respective thresholds, Blackwood told lawmakers. But Blackwood lamented that that total still doesn't meet the state threshold needed for Public Assistance.

Damages in Doddridge and Jackson counties exceeding $1 million from an Aug. 10 rain event also failed to meet the state's $2.92 million threshold despite dwarfing those counties' respective thresholds.

"This becomes a challenge where we have some severe damage in a county but it does not rise to the level of the state thresholds," Blackwood said.

An Aug. 14-15 rain event that caused damages in Fayette and Kanawha counties registering over $7.6 million easily surpassed those counties' respective thresholds of $166,001 and $741,055, Blackwood reported.

Blackwood noted that requirements aren't as clear-cut for declarations providing Individual Assistance, federal grant support for homeowners and renters.

Public Assistance includes support for some nonprofits that provide essential services like utilities, education, medical and emergency care. The FEMA provides a reimbursement grant of at least 75% of eligible costs, with state and local governments sharing the remaining 25%.

Individual Assistance may help pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs, and medical and funeral expenses caused directly by a declared disaster.

A state request for a presidential declaration in response to a May 6 rainfall event that hit Cabell and Wayne counties was denied by FEMA, as was a subsequent state appeal of that decision, Blackwood said. That request was for Individual Assistance only, Blackwood noted, because the threshold for Public Assistance wasn't met.

West Virginia University associate forest hydrology professor Nicolas Zegre explained to the committee why West Virginia is especially prone to adverse impacts from flooding exacerbated by climate change.

Citing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, Zegre noted that West Virginia suffered 1,683 floods from January 2007 to March 2022, including 968 since the June 2016 flood that killed 23 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

Kanawha County endured the highest number of floods in that span (nearly 100), followed by Berkeley, Greenbrier, Cabell and Mercer counties, respectively.

Flash floods occurring when runoff from extreme rainfall causes a quick rise in the water height of a stream, have been slightly less common but far more deadly and costly than riverine floods, Zegre said.

In riverine floods, excessive runoff from longer-lasting rain events causes a slower rise in water levels over a larger area.

Kanawha County is a part of a flash flooding hot spot that is hottest in southeastern Putnam County, rivaled statewide only by another hot spot centered in Harrison County, per Zegre's presentation.

Zegre noted that both flash and riverine flooding have been on the rise statewide since 2007, a troubling trend he attributed to a small increase in air temperature — 1 degree Fahrenheit — causing a significant escalation in water vapor from forests, soils and waterbodies.

The result has been more frequent storms, excessive rainfall and floods running roughshod over what Zegre observed are particularly shallow soils throughout West Virginia.

Sen. Chandler Swope, R- Mercer, the committee's co-chair who presided over Sunday's meeting, has previously denied the scientific consensus that human activities are the main driver of climate change.

A study released in October by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group that quantifies climate risk, found more than half of West Virginia's critical infrastructure — including fire, police and power stations — is at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding. That was a higher share than in any other state.

And West Virginia's flooding problem is projected to only get worse.

Zegre cited a projection from the First Street Foundation that nearly the entire state will have double-digit increases in the percentage of properties at risk of flooding by 2050 compared to 2020, including escalations of over 40% in Doddridge, Kanawha, Mingo, Taylor and Wetzel counties.

"[I]t's super-important that we look forward in our planning to ensure that we can protect West Virginians," Zegre said.

Sanders said the symposium revealed that there was little "broad understanding as to who's doing what and who's going to be responsible for what" regarding long-term flood risk reduction activities.

"One of the things that we would encourage from what we heard from the symposium is to be thoughtful in really thinking through that organizational structure ... who's ultimately going to be responsible for executing when you have an updated plan," Sanders said.

Last updated in 2004, the 365-page plan serves up a long list of flood control recommendations, such as updating floodplain maps, integrating geographic information systems (GIS) with flood damage data, building-code updates and funding stream restoration.

Getting future flood planning right will be key anywhere as climate change worsens. But West Virginia's narrow valleys, steep slopes and shallow soils mean it's critical in the Mountain State.

"It's a place that we don't think really receives enough attention on a national scale relative to the flood risks that you all face here," Sanders said.

©2022 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.