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Symposium Aims To Kickstart New West Virginia Flood Protection Plan

Gertie, a family's 16-year-old dog, looks out over a flooded yard Friday, May 6, 2022, in Huntington, W.Va. The mayor of a West Virginia city issued an emergency declaration Friday after the second large-scale flooding event in Huntington in nine months.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

CHARLESTON – A group of experts want to try to kick-start an update to West Virginia’s nearly 20-year-old flood protection plan while money begins to rain down on the state for mitigation projects.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, New Orleans-based disaster recovery and mitigation company SBP, and the State Resiliency Office sponsored a two-day flood symposium at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center beginning Wednesday.

More than 80 registrants representing state, county and city officials were slated to participate in the two-day event. The symposium’s goal is to lay the groundwork for updating the state’s flood protection plan, an 11-page document first completed in 2004.

Work on the plan took six years, beginning under former governors Cecil Underwood and Bob Wise between 1998 and 2004. There were 16 federal disaster declarations for flood events in West Virginia between 1996 and 2004, an eight-year period. But since 2005, the number of federal disaster declarations, not counting COVID-19 and the 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, rose to 27 events over a 17-year period.

Bob Martin, director of the State Resiliency Office since May of last year, said there were many good ideas in the previous 2004 flood protection plan. Part of the goal of the symposium will be determining what has been implemented, what needs to be implemented, and what needs updated.

Speaking Wednesday morning prior to the start of the symposium, Martin said it won’t take the six years it took for the previous plan to be developed; that state and local planners can build on the work of the previous plan.

“This will be the first step,” Martin said. “The groundwork, the base for this, is already in place. Now we just have to do is really tweak it and bring it up to date with modern technology…what they’re able to do today compared to what they could have done 18 or 20 years ago are vastly different.”

Martin is the second director for the State Resiliency Office in the nearly two years the agency has existed. The State Resiliency Office was created by legislation drafted by the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, formed to address issues that arose after the 2016 floods in southern and central West Virginia. The office answers directly to Gov. Jim Justice.

Flood Committee Co-Chairman Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, and committee member and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, briefe attendees on the history and progress of the Flood Committee and the State Resiliency Board.

“I guess the definition of a resiliency plan is to put a standard operating manual together with state and federal agencies, so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and what their relationship with all the other agencies involved,” Swope said. “When you think about that, that’s a daunting task…but we’re going to keep at it until we get it done.”

“It is not a matter of if this happens again; it’s a matter of when this happens again, and I want us to be prepared,” Baldwin said. “I know everybody here wants us to be prepared, and that’s why I appreciate your all’s professionalism and your expertise so much. I’m really hopeful about this process.”

Baldwin, whose home county was one of the hardest hit during the 2016 floods, said he and local emergency managers were surprised to discover there was a flood protection plan on the books.

“I think it was two days after the floods struck that we found out in that process that there was a flood protection plan for the State of West Virginia,” Baldwin said. “None of us knew anything about it…it was infuriating, but it was also just sort of disempowering. You had this sense that something could have been done.”

According to a report last October by the First Street Foundation which studies risks from climate change, 17 of the top 20 U.S. counties most at risk from flooding are in Louisiana, Florida, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Matthew Sanders, a senior manager with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said any plans need to do more than anticipating today’s risks, but focus on projected risks into the future.

“The data shows West Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of residences in flood-prone areas compared to anywhere in the country,” said Sanders, who manages Pew’s flood-prepared communities initiative. “That includes some of the places that you would commonly associate with catastrophic floods. Places like Florida, places like the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and places like my home state of Louisiana.”

The timing might not be better for West Virginia. The state received the second half of the $1.35 billion in direct funding from the American Rescue Plan Act this week, which can be used for stormwater and watershed infrastructure projects. Counties and cities received a combined $679 million from ARPA, which can be used for infrastructure projects, or be combined with other counties/cities for regional projects or with state ARPA dollars.

West Virginia is expected to receive between $6 billion and $7 billion over the next several years from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, some of which can be used for flood mitigation and stormwater infrastructure projects. For counties hit by the 2016 floods, community development block grant funds for mitigation projects remain. Some funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is available. Plus, the state is expected to end the fiscal year in June with more than $1 billion, with as much as $250 million expected to go to the general revenue fund after surplus items in the new fiscal year 2023 budget are paid for.

The State Resiliency Office works with state agencies to ensure that parts of the state hit with natural disasters and man-made emergencies can bounce back quickly. It also manages non-federal disaster and hazard mitigation grant funding. The office is assisted by an advisory committee of state cabinet and constitutional offices as well as other state agencies and legislative appointees.

Justice, speaking last week after touring flood damage in downtown Huntington after more than four inches of rain fell in a short amount of time in the Fourpole watershed the weekend of May 6, called for getting “all the smart people together” to develop a flood mitigation plan. In written remarks sent with Martin for the symposium, Justice said he had faith in the symposium’s attendees to develop a new plan.

“During this symposium, I know that you all will work together to develop plans to update our 18-year-old flood protection plan. It’s obvious that West Virginia could use a little help when it comes to flooding…I have faith that you will come up with great answers on how we can use this time in our state to make a difference and make some changes to protect future generations from these catastrophic flood events.”

The office is still in the process of organization, with only four permanent staff members. Wednesday’s symposium was the first time many county and city officials have met face-to-face with Martin and State Resiliency Office staff since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and since Martin took over the agency from Bobby Cales, the office’s first director. Martin said he hopes the next two days can kick-start much needed updates to the statewide flood protection plan.

“From this conference where we’re at finally today – after COVID and all the changes and delays that we had to go through – we finally got to a point where we have participants here to provide feedback to what we want to add to, or take away from, that plan and really to get buy-in from everybody,” Martin said. “There is no chance that we’re going to be able to do all this on our own. No one agency can do this. It has to be a group effort.

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