By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia’s Director of the State Resiliency Office, Bob Martin, delivered his agency’s first quarter report to members of the Joint Legislative Interim Committee on Flooding on Sunday, telling lawmakers he believes the economic future of the Mountain State depends on proper flood mitigation and resiliency strategies.
“This is the world according to Bob,” Martin said. “I think flood resiliency and flood mitigation in the state of West Virginia is probably the baseline of economic development for the state. I think that’s what will create the most prosperity for the state. If we can control the water, and utilize the water to our good and bend it to our will, we will get there. It will create schools that don’t flood regularly. We will have children who want to come back and stay in the state because they didn’t live and grow up in a flooded area. Business, industry and homes won’t flood regularly, and people will stay in them. Economically, I think that’s the way to go.”
During the meeting, in response to a question from Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, about a new “shift” from protection to resiliency in the state’s flood plan following passage of SB 677, Martin explained that “the resiliency side has been there.”
“Mitigation and resiliency work hand-in-hand,” Martin stated. “One is prevention, and the other one is so you can live and survive with it. We have to embrace both. I think that’s the only way we are going to get through it.”
SB 677 was passed during the 2023 Legislative Session, and was signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice on March 29. The bill eliminates the state’s Flood Protection Plan and requires that it be replaced with the Flood Resiliency Plan.
This new resiliency plan must be in place by June 30, 2024, and be updated biannually, Martin stated.
“This document will have to have a little bit more depth to it,” he noted.
The bill also created the West Virginia Flood Resiliency Trust Fund, which “requires that 50% of disbursements be expended to benefit low-income communities,” and requires that a portion of its disbursements be used to “implement nature-based solutions” – like restoring natural wetlands. The bill states that the fund may be “granted an initial allocation” of $40 million from the state’s general revenue fund, and the state resiliency office may request up to $40 million each year to replenish funding.
Additionally, the bill placed the administrative authority of the West Virginia Disaster Recovery Trust Fund under the state resiliency officer, and notes that the fund “may be granted an initial one-time allocation” of $10 million, with allowable requests of up to $10 million in funding annually.
“As far as Senate Bill 677, we’ll really be looking for the Legislature to put together an idea of funding for it, and the guidance that would come with that,” Martin stated. “If we look at the federal side of it, the federal side will come with its own guidelines as to how that money has to be administered.”
Del. Mike Honaker, R-Greenbrier, who also serves as Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Greenbrier County, stated that following the June 2016 flood, work in his county still needs to be done.
“What’s remarkable – we’re still working on recovery,” Honaker stated, adding that people often want to know what takes so long. “The response I give is complexity.”
Honaker then addressed the Milton floodwall project along the Mud River in Cabell County, which had been discussed by Martin earlier in the meeting.
According to Martin, the congressional passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 increased the federal share of the project costs from 65% to 90%. This increase, along with the recent announcement by U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin that the project would receive $190.7 million in federal funding, and with $16 million provided by the state, is allowing the project to move forward.
“You mentioned the 90/10, 65/35 split . . . it seems like the emergency managers throughout the state look at this as limbo. They are just looking for an answer. Are they going to get an answer?” Honaker asked, noting that, at times, “cost is being pushed back” to counties.
Martin responded that the state must “have money to put forward” to receive certain grants.
“They’ve created it so there is some leeway now because of communities that are under-served,” Martin explained. “So, if they are an underserved community, they can get a better percentage to work with, but yet still the state, right now, is not able to come up with all the dollars. So, that’s one thing that we would hope that from this funding that the Legislature would put it forward that way.”
Martin continued that legislators could help him, help those in his office and help residents of the state by placing funding into the two accounts that “don’t have any money in them,” and by looking at any new legislation from a “flood resiliency perspective” – like including floodplain managers into discussions on building and project management.
Martin also said that the state will continue to see flood events.
“I think, on average, we normally have about six a year,” Martin noted. “Of those six, six to eight, we usually only get one or so, maybe two, that get public assistance for them.”
As for the state’s economic future, Martin said that it’s important to create livable, workable areas that “don’t flood on a regular basis.”
Answering a question from Committee Chairman Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, regarding a computer program that has analyzed the flood risk of every area in the state, Martin said that the flood tool provides an even better analysis of flood risk than FEMA mapping.
Although predictive modeling is not yet able to determine how much flooding will occur in a certain area, its data can be used to determine social vulnerability and identify “pockets” of residents who should have flood insurance, Martin said.