West Virginia’s hidden flood threat

West Virginia is prone to flooding.  The mostly mountainous terrain means sudden and heavy downpours can turn normally placid creeks into torrents of mud and debris.

Just last week West Virginia marked the four year anniversary of the catastrophic 2016 flash flooding that left 23 people dead and tens of millions of dollars in damages to homes, buildings, and infrastructure.  Communities are still trying to rebuild from that.

Now new research suggests the flood risk in West Virginia and many other parts of the country is even greater than current estimates by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The New York Times reports First Street Foundation created its own flood model “using federal elevation and rainfall data, and coastal flooding estimates from hurricanes.  The foundation then checked its results against a national database of flood claims and historic flood paths.”

First Street found places that “show a vast increase in risk compared with official estimates. Many inland areas, including swaths of Appalachia and numerous major cities, saw big jumps,” the Times reported.

Nowhere is that truer than in West Virginia.  First Street’s analysis raises the flood risk above FEMA projections in nearly every county, with the greatest difference in Kanawha and Wyoming Counties.

The study determined that 44 percent of the properties in Kanawha County are at risk of flooding from a major storm, while FEMA estimates only 14 percent.  FEMA’s mapping says 18 percent of the properties in Wyoming County are a flood risk, but First Street says it is over half of all properties.

(The First Street website includes a valuable tool where you can enter your zip code to find your home’s flood factor.)

FEMA told the Times that the First Street data complements its efforts. “We know there is no perfect science to predicting flooding,” a spokeswoman told the Times.  “The Flood Factor product may help property owners with the critical decisions they must make and purchase necessary insurance.”

But that gets complicated.  Politicians, businesses, and homeowners sometimes push back against updated FEMA maps showing a greater flood risk because that drives up insurance costs. “You can’t appeal your rate. You can only fight your map,” Roy Wright, former head of the National Flood Insurance Program, told the Times.

The new independent data is ominous for our region. It seems West Virginia is barely finished clean-up and rebuilding from one flood when another hits. Meanwhile, heavy rains trigger multiple smaller, more concentrated floods.

We tend to think of these floods as anomalies, especially when these events are identified as 100-year floods.  However, that means there is a one in 100 (1 percent) chance of a flood, not that the floods will be separated by 100 years.

And now this new data reveals a hidden flood risk that helps explain why West Virginia is often hit by flash flooding and why those events may be even more common in the years ahead.



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