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West Virginia’s Resiliency Plan Underfunded, Underdeveloped

"We're looking for additional guidance on what you see as the things that we need to do within this state and then be able to provide us with everything legislatively that's needed to implement those plans."

(TNS) - West Virginia is especially flood-prone, but the latest meeting of a state legislative panel on flooding underscored that its flood resiliency framework lacks funding and is underdeveloped.

"This is where we're asking for help," State Resiliency Officer Bob Martin told the Joint Legislative Flooding Committee meeting during an interim legislative session meeting Sunday.

Martin's plea came while highlighting a PowerPoint slide that featured state code requiring him to recommend legislation to reduce flood damage.

"We're looking for additional guidance on what you see as the things that we need to do within this state and then be able to provide us with everything legislatively that's needed to implement those plans," Martin told committee members.

Established by state law in 2017, the State Resiliency Office administers disaster recovery and resiliency money and coordinates flood protection programs.

But three years since it was rebooted and two years after Martin took over as its head, the office still is in adjustment mode, Martin indicated, citing challenges of writing grants and keeping up with nuances in federal funding opportunities.

Martin said he'd "like to think that we're less than a year" away from the office being able to accomplish projects.

"I can't write a check for that," Martin cautioned.

The Legislature could do more than write a check to support flood resiliency but has stopped short of doing so.

Trust funds are unfunded

Lawmakers in March passed Senate Bill 677, which created a new trust fund to prioritize nature-based flood protection and prevention solutions for low-income areas with a potential allocation of $40 million.

Under SB 677, the State Resiliency Office will administer the already existing Disaster Recovery Trust Fund , removed from the jurisdiction of state homeland security and emergency management officials. The fund could be granted an initial one-time $10 million allocation, with the State Resiliency Office Board able to seek $10 million replenishment annually.

But the bill, which Pew Charitable Trusts worked to develop with lawmakers, doesn't allocate any funding.

Martin told the committee Sunday there was no money in either the flood resiliency fund or the Disaster Recovery Trust Fund.

Martin said the office probably could execute projects now if it had what it was looking for in federal or state support.

The office consists of Martin, a deputy director and an administrative assistant on an annual budget of $500,000 to $600,000 to administer the office, Martin noted to the committee.

But if the office had to go into "post-disaster" mode, it would have to "expand quite a bit" and undergo a "significant change," Martin said, though he added the office could "take people" from other agencies with budgeting, legal and grant expertise as part of a "shell move" if needed.

Martin said the state would have to coordinate a long-term disaster recovery plan for when the Federal Emergency Management Agency "steps out" following a disaster — on top of assembling a new flood resiliency plan to replace the state's 19-year-old flood protection plan.

SB 677 requires Martin to develop a new state flood resiliency plan by June 30, 2024, and then coordinate an annual review of it.

The committee took in a presentation from the head of a nonpartisan flooding solutions group that stressed the importance of taking advantage of billions of federal dollars available to build state flood resilience.

"There's probably never going to be another time where there's more money available for these types of infrastructure projects and economic development projects," Melissa Roberts, founder and executive director of the American Flood Coalition, said.

Roberts urged state officials to dedicate consistent funding to its Flood Resiliency Trust Fund established by SB 677, prioritize flood resiliency projects with actionable metrics, develop comprehensive statewide flood monitoring using forward-looking rainfall data and empower the State Resiliency Office with additional career staff.

West Virginia Emergency Management Division Director G.E. McCabe also addressed the committee.

McCabe downplayed criticism over West Virginia's lack of participation for fiscal year 2022 in a competition for grant money that supports states and localities with projects aimed at reducing disaster and natural hazard risks.

That competition was through FEMA's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, or BRIC.

None of the 1,073 sub-applications FEMA received in fiscal year 2022 for grant money through BRIC and its Flood Mitigation Assistance program were from West Virginia, according to FEMA data.

Flood Mitigation Assistance is a competitive program that provides funding to states and local governments for projects that reduce or erase the risk of repetitive flood damage to buildings that have federal flood insurance.

McCabe said potential BRIC applicants went the "earmark route," going after congressionally directed spending with success instead of pursuing competitive BRIC funding.

The Emergency Management Division has been an applicant for past projects. A PowerPoint presentation McCabe showed said the division is tracking projects for fiscal year 2023 BRIC consideration.

The stakes for flood resiliency in West Virginia are increasingly high due to climate change driving more extreme weather patterns over time.

Roberts alluded to a finding published by an online tool through the First Street Foundation that 35 percent of all West Virginia properties have greater than a 26 percent chance of being severely affected by flooding over the next 30 years. The foundation is a Brooklyn, New York -based nonprofit that quantifies climate risks.

"This is kind of an everyday kitchen table issue," Roberts said.

©2023 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.