As the five-year anniversary of a catastrophic West Virginia flood approaches, a state senator from one of the hardest-hit areas is pushing the state to invest more in mitigation efforts to prevent future disasters.
“If all the indications are true about the severity of flood events increasing in frequency and intensity then we have to be better prepared. Right now we’re not,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.
Floods just hit more West Virginia towns after recent heavy rain.
Baldwin, who is a longstanding member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Flooding, sent a recent letter to Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Craig Blair to urge greater state investment in flood mitigation.
Baldwin pointed toward a budget surplus of millions of dollars the state anticipates at the end of the fiscal year. Governor Justice has estimated that would be about $400 million. However, the governor and legislators just agreed to spend $150 million of that on road maintenance.
“We have an opportunity to do real flood mitigation with available surplus funds right now,” Baldwin wrote in the letter. “You have all supported investing in our dams over the last few years, and that work is just the tip of the iceberg.”
He cited an already-prioritized set of dam and stream projects from the state Conservation Office. That document notes that West Virginia has 170 small-watershed flood control dams and all 170 are classified as being high hazard — meaning a failure could result in the loss of life and property.
The document ranks 25 dam projects by priority, with cost ranging from a little less than $4 million for some projects up to around $20 million for some others. The agency characterizes the projects as “a major infrastructure initiative” that would “provide continued public safety and provide infrastructure jobs in the 11 counties where they are located.”
“The dams on WVCA’s Top 25 list have all exceeded their evaluated design lives, and repairs and updates are needed to ensure each continues to provide flood protection to the residents and businesses living downstream,” the agency wrote.
“That investment will save lives, save money the next time a flood hits, and save towns,” he wrote.
Asked about the possibility of spending additional state funds on mitigation to prevent future flooding, Justice seemed open to the possibility. The governor made reference to $106.5 million in federal flood relief money the state gained the ability to use a couple of years ago. Federal records show only about $16,000 of that has been spent so far.
“From the standpoint of putting more money into mitigation to try to do anything we can to prevent these disasters from happening, I’m all for it,” Justice said.
James Hoyer, who led West Virginia’s flood relief effort and who now heads the Joint Interagency Task Force, agreed an ongoing effort is necessary.
“Where the opportunities present themselves to add more dollars to mitigation and simple things things that include cleaning out streams that, unfortunately, have a lot of bureaucratic challenges to them are exceptionally important to us going forward in minimizing the tragedy of the things we see during flooding,” Hoyer said.
Baldwin said he wants to continue to spotlight the possibilities of flood prevention.
“Dams protect most of the towns in West Virginia. The impact of this is huge. I think it just sort of gets lost in the shuffle,” he said in a telephone interview.
“And we just think ‘Well, this is West Virginia. We have flood events because of our topography and that’s just the way it is.’ But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything we shouldn’t do about it.”