By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – For two hours on Sunday, members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding heard from numerous experts as they discussed the many issues surrounding flooding and recovery efforts throughout the Mountain State.
One expert, Nicholas Zegre, who serves as associate professor of Forest Hydrology at West Virginia University, explained that the state is under an ever-increasing flooding threat due to warmer average temperatures.
According to Zegre, the average annual temperature in West Virginia has risen by one degree Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial period. This temperature rise is “unequivocally related to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
“Warmer air holds more water,” Zegre further explained, adding that every one degree increase in air temperature results in “four percent more water” stored in the atmosphere.
“What this means is we are having more frequent storms, more extreme rainfall, more floods – and this poses a very big challenge for West Virginians who are already starting with what we call a pre-hazard precarity.”
Between January 2007 and March 2022, there were 1,683 flood events, 34 deaths and property damage in excess of $54 million statewide, Zegre said.
Kanawha County has experienced the most flooding events followed by Berkeley, Greenbrier and Cabell counties, he continued.
“This doesn’t mean that any one of these counties is less flood prone than any other, this is just to demonstrate that flood events are a part of West Virginia,” Zegre noted.
Additionally, he said that two flash flooding epicenters have been identified in the state. The first is centered in Harrison County and the second is centered in Kanawha County. A riverine flooding epicenter is also located in the state’s eastern panhandle.
“Hourly rainfall intensity is increasing,” Zegre added. He then cited a recent study that showed the city of Huntington has “some of the greatest increases in hourly rainfall intensity in the United States.”
He said that West Virginia has the “highest flood vulnerability in the country,” equivalent to that of the coastal flooding concerns in Louisiana.
“Here in West Virginia, as a land-locked state, we are dealing with flash flooding and riverine flooding,” he explained, adding that state officials should take this data into consideration to develop an updated flood protection plan.
Mathew Sanders, senior manager for the PEW Charitable Trusts Flood Prepared Communities Initiative, also shared some of their findings that they believe should be included in a future statewide flood protection plan.
He explained that during the West Virginia Flood Symposium in May, stakeholders gathered to discuss the state’s 2004 Flood Protection Plan. Through those discussions, it was discovered that the state “had a fairly robust plan,” but only 14 percent of the plan’s recommendations were ever acted on.
“Part of the consequence of not having effective authorities in place was that not a whole lot got done from that 2004 plan,” Sanders noted.
Additionally, he said participants frequently shared that local floodplain managers “wear a lot of different hats within their local government jurisdiction.” As a result, they are not able to ensure that floodplains are properly managed.
Many communities do not have ordinances in place to adequately regulate the floodplain, he continued. This leads to development activities which contribute to flood risk conditions. Moving forward, he said it is “vitally important” that state officials work with these communities to develop flooding solutions.
Lastly, he said that “strategic acquisition of properties” and natural solutions, such as stream restoration and improving watershed function to decrease sediment buildup, should be included in future plans.
Also during the meeting, committee members heard financial updates on recent storm events.
Dr. Matt Blackwood, deputy director of the West Virginia Emergency Management Division, explained that before the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will grant funding for public financial assistance following a disaster, damages must exceed certain monetary thresholds.
The state threshold is set at $2.92 million, Blackwood said. Also, each county must meet its own threshold for damages, ranging from $21,295 in Wirt County to $741,055 in Kanawha County.
This summer there were four separate storm events, but only two met both the state and county thresholds required for federal public assistance, he continued. Those include the July 12 rain event that impacted McDowell County, and the August 15 event that impacted Kanawha and Fayette counties.
“McDowell’s threshold is just over $78,000, and right now we have approximately $4.6 million in recorded damages,” Blackwood said.
During the Aug. 15 heavy rainfall event, Fayette County sustained over $8.6 million in damages, he added. Kanawha County is still working on their damage assessments, but they have already exceeded their threshold.
The July 26-Aug. 1 storm event that impacted Fayette, Logan, Mingo, Greenbrier, McDowell and Wyoming counties did not meet the state threshold for public assistance, nor did the Aug. 10 event that impacted Doddridge and Jackson counties, Blackwood said.
“This becomes a challenge where we have some severe damage in a county, but it does not rise to the level of state thresholds,” Blackwood said. “But, again we are working on this.”
He explained that a lot of private bridges were destroyed in the event beginning on July 26, but that private bridges do not “go into our monetary value for public assistance declarations.” However, Blackwood said the next step is trying to link all the storm events from July and August into one single incident to meet both state and county thresholds for public assistance.
“We are working with the state climatologist, Kevin Law, down at Marshall University and the National Weather Service to classify all those storm events from July 12 through Aug. 15 as a single incident. That would allow us to easily meet all these different thresholds that we have to follow. Our argument is the ground did not have enough time to desaturate. It was literally storm, after storm, after storm, and the water levels never had an opportunity to go down,” Blackwood said.
He also noted that road damages caused by storm events cannot be included in damage assessment reports if they receive funding from the Federal-Aid Highway Program. This presents another challenge in trying to meet state thresholds. Instead, those federal dollars go to the state’s Division of Highways.
As for the May 6 rain event that impacted Cabell and Wayne counties, the appeal submitted to FEMA for individual assistance has been denied, Blackwood noted.
“We put together what we thought was a really good and compelling story of why some of those areas had a high social vulnerability index, and how they were much more vulnerable to even smaller storms, but we were unsuccessful.”
There are other avenues to get funding and assistance to communities, Blackwood explained, adding that his department is also working with West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (WV VOAD) to address “unmet needs.”
Lastly, at the meeting’s conclusion, members made a motion to go before the full legislature to request $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for demolition of flood damaged properties throughout West Virginia. If approved, funding will be administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.