With major flooding as backdrop, experts work to build resilience in West Virginia

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On May 6, in just a few hours, 4 inches of rain fell in and around the town of Huntington, West Virginia, causing catastrophic flooding in more than 200 homes, devastating hundreds of lives and killing one resident. The next day the flood had receded, but the long, slow recovery was just beginning.









The disaster was the latest reminder that flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States and in West Virginia, one of the nation’s most flood-prone inland states. This flooding also added a sense of urgency for more than 70 experts from across West Virginia and beyond who gathered in Charleston on May 18 for a two-day flood symposium – scheduled well before the flood. May 6 disaster – organized by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the national disaster resilience and recovery organization NOTand the Office of State Resilience. The symposium was organized to inform the development of a new flood protection plan for the state, and as Gov. Jim Justice (R) wrote in a statement prepared to kick off the symposium, “to s tackling some big issues and questions…and making some changes to protect future generations from these catastrophic floods.

Flooding in West Virginia is on the rise

More than 100 floods have hit the state in each of the past four years

Year

# of floods

Estimated damage

Year

# of floods

Estimated damage

2010

88

$23.3 million

2016

82

$164.9 million

2011

140

$4.1 million

2017

96

$5.2 million

2012

45

$10.4 million

2018

367

$5.2 million

2013

117

$7 million

2019

140

$1.5 million

2014

62

$1.9 million

2020

110

$2.4 million

2015

130

$15.7 million

2021

232

$2.4 million

Total

1,609

$244 million

Source: NOAA Storm Event Database

West Virginia developed its first flood protection plan in 2004, but funding issues and other factors prevented full implementation. And the plan does not take into account the stronger and more frequent storms that are occurring today and which climatologists predict will become even more frequent in the near future. After a catastrophic flood in 2016 left 23 dead and hundreds homeless, the state legislature took action by passing a bill to create the state’s Office of Resilience and develop a new version of the flood protection plan.

Symposium Day 1: Taking stock of flood risk in West Virginia

On the first day of the symposium, state senators Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier) and Chandler Swope (R-Mercer) — the co-chairs of the West Virginia Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding — urged attendees to send policymakers a new plan, based on science, it would save lives.

“We don’t need a plan we want to hear…we need an honest plan,” Baldwin said. Also, unlike in the past, resources are available to implement a new plan, as the state has remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and a $1 billion budget surplus, as well as funds of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed in 2021.







State Resilience Officer Robert Martin speaks to media covering the flood symposium in West Virginia on May 18.

The Pew Charitable Trusts




State Resilience Officer Robert Martin, the lead in developing a new flood protection plan, said he welcomes the opportunity to collaborate on this effort, which was one of the main objectives of the symposium.

“Some things have to be eliminated from [the 2004 plan] because it was no longer viable because the technology had outgrown the ideas,” Martin said. He also added that the new plan must take into account flood reduction activities that have been completed since 2004 but were not included in the original plan.

To accomplish these tasks, Pew brought together experts from inside and outside the state to assess how best to address West Virginia’s unique flooding issues, including the rugged terrain and pattern of historic development in the state with an abundance of towns along the riverbanks.



Floods 2 Symposium




Less than two weeks after catastrophic flooding hit Huntington, West Virginia, more than 70 experts, elected officials and other stakeholders gathered at the Charleston Civic Center to help craft a new flood plan for the state. .

The Pew Charitable Trusts




Among these experts, Chris Emrich, a geographer and social scientist from the University of Central Florida who specializes in disasters, explained that West Virginia has both serious flood threats and significant community vulnerabilities, which , when combined, lead to serious consequences. Additionally, Emrich said extreme rainfall events are becoming more common and the state suffers from shallow soils, undersized culverts, waterways clogged with trash and debris, and steep slopes.

Nicholas Zegre of the University of West Virginia, a hydrologist specializing in mountain freshwater ecosystems, led a discussion on data sources and the state’s unique mountain topography. He also showed cellphone footage of his own yard in Morgantown, where a torrential downpour turned his neighbour’s driveway into a gushing stream that spilled into a flooded road.

And Huntington Mayor Steve Williams tearfully explained that his city needed real solutions, but had little power to affect the root causes of the flooding because Huntington is on the outskirts of a 23 square mile watershed, most of which is outside of its jurisdiction.



Floods 3 Colloquium




Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, speaking May 18 at the symposium, urges attendees to come up with a flood plan that will help his community, which suffered a major flood just two weeks earlier.

The Pew Charitable Trusts




Symposium Day 2: Putting good data to work for a new flood plan

On the second day of the symposium, participants decided what to keep or discard from the 2004 plan and what to add to the new plan. They based those decisions on what worked and how West Virginia’s flood landscape has changed since 2004.



Floods Colloquium 4




Participants ask for five more minutes to discuss elements of West Virginia’s 2004 flood plan, deciding what to keep, throw away or add when developing a new plan.

The Pew Charitable Trusts




For example, the group agreed that new large-scale commercial developments – including big-box stores and restaurants – and their large impermeable parking lots have worsened stormwater runoff. To address this challenge, participants debated how West Virginia could encourage low-impact development practices without sacrificing economic opportunity. They also discussed how the state could develop a large-scale program focused on the natural restoration of streams and rivers and clearing waterways clogged with trash and debris. Another idea was whether large tracts of vacant land adjacent to frequently flooded waterways could be converted into retention ponds or retention ponds that could help protect nearby communities.



Floods Colloquium 5




Flood experts assess a map of White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, an area particularly at risk from flooding, and identify opportunities to reduce future flooding.

The Pew Charitable Trusts




Participants also assessed maps of six West Virginia areas particularly prone to flooding, identifying root causes and identifying opportunities to alter a development pattern or take advantage of the natural landscape to reduce flooding.

West Virginia Flood Protection Plan

Officials are considering recommendations in 12 categories

  • Floodplain management
  • Flood warning systems
  • Floodplain mapping
  • Flood Damage Assessments
  • Building Codes, Permits and Enforcement
  • Environmental impacts
  • Stream crossings and access roads
  • Dredging
  • Resource extraction
  • Stormwater management
  • Education
  • Flood-prone structures and installations

Source: West Virginia State Flood Protection Plan 2004

Ultimately, plans can only be implemented if they are funded. Senator Swope said the event gave him the inspiration to make sure the plan was eventually implemented. “I see all the resources we need are here – the science we need, the political perspective we need,” Swope said. “It’s my job to carry this message to the Legislature and the Governor’s office.”

Going forward, Pew will analyze the hundreds of data points and insights collected during the West Virginia Flood Symposium and synthesize the results for possible inclusion in the new Flood Protection Plan, which is expected to be finalized. and released in late 2022 or early 2023.

Mathew Sanders is a senior executive, and Kristiane Huber and Zachary Bartscherer are Flood Prepared Communities Project Officers from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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