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Get to Work on Flood Mitigation

I’ve been fascinated with emergency services ever since I was a young kid. My father was a 911 dispatcher in my hometown of St. Marys as well as a member of the volunteer emergency squad in Pleasants County.

Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to walk into the St. Marys Police Department to visit dad on a shift in the evenings and see him in the middle of a 911 call, sending law enforcement, EMTs, and firefighters to the next emergency.

People I knew personally, people with day jobs or asleep after pulling a night shift at the local plant, would stop what they were doing at the sound of their pager or the town siren and go racing to the fire hall or squad building at a moment’s notice. I thought it was cool to see my dad hop into his Chevy S-10, put it into reverse and swing the front-end of the pick-up truck around to gun it at the sound of the call.

So as a reporter, I have always been interested in emergency planning. I grew up in a river town that flooded from time to time and upstream from chemical plants where any number of things could go wrong. I covered Local Emergency Planning Commission meetings, participated in tabletop disaster planning exercises and can probably talk to you in detail about all-hazards planning that counties have been required to do even since 9/11.

I’m coming up now on four years writing for your newspaper. It was fitting that one of the first things that happened the month I picked up my pen again was the takeover of the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program by the West Virginia National Guard after a series of issues led to the suspensions and firings of people in the West Virginia Development Office and Department of Commerce. Ever since, flood recovery and mitigation has been something I’ve monitored very closely.

I’ve heard it said before, including by Gov. Jim Justice, that because West Virginia is a mountainous state and water flows downward, that flooding is something to simply be expected. I’m not sure Justice means to sound this way, but it is indicative of the fatalism that permeates much of our state’s culture, particularly in the southern part of the state. We’ve largely accepted that our state floods, we’ve gotten really good at the clean-up in the aftermath, and then we sit back and wait on the flood recovery checks from FEMA.

However, we as a people have largely relegated the concept of flood mitigation, putting in place systems and regulations to help lessen the damage that future flooding can cause, to a dusty filing cabinet. West Virginia has a 111-page statewide flood protection plan developed over six years and completed in 2004, 18 years ago.

While some things have been implemented in the plan, it’s unclear how much has been implemented and how much has not. That was part of a goal for last week’s two-day flood symposium in Charleston, where the Pew Charitable Trusts is trying to provide help and guidance to state and local officials on updating the plan and actually making sure the new plan gets put into place before the next 1,000-year flood event comes along.

Lord knows there has never been more federal funding, and even state funding, available to build out the kind of mitigation we need. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars that can be used by state and local governments to fix stormwater systems that haven’t been touched since the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, or counties and state agencies to work on cleaning out creeks and streams so they stay within their banks.

It’s going to take more than money of course, though I understand all counties have the ability to levy a fee on residents to fund flood mitigation and none do so. It’s going to take regulations, particularly for issues such as ditches and culverts, which have no consistent standards in West Virginia. That’s just one example. Another would be now allowing residents to reconstruct in floodplains.

Point being: we have to get out of the mindset on the individual level and on the state and local government level that floods happen, we can’t do anything about them and just give me my check. We’re not the only hilly state around, but we have more counties at risk of flooding than those states, including North Carolina and Tennessee. It floods in those states, but they also have rules, plans and have done the work. If they can do it, we can too.

West Virginia created a joint legislative committee to study flood impact. That committee and Gov. Justice created the State Resiliency Office and board to coordinate all state and local governments and agencies to work on flood mitigation. Surely they didn’t create the State Resiliency Office for appearances, right? I know its director, Bob Martin, is serious about flood mitigation. Perhaps he should be given the tools, staff and funding he needs.


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