By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
EDITOR’S NOTE: For the sake of both transparency and clarity, RealWV wishes to acknowledge that the author of this piece, Stephen Baldwin – while serving in the West Virginia State Senate – was a member of the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Flooding, until his departure from office in January of this year.
On the seven-year anniversary of a deadly flood, West Virginia officials continue to wrestle over how to update a flood plan originally written nineteen years ago. An update was set to be unveiled earlier this year, but Senate Bill 677 changed state code and delayed the plan by at least one more year.
Twenty-three people died on June 23, 2016, when a 1,000 year flood descended on southern West Virginia. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the state’s existing flood protection plan was adopted in 2004, “but funding issues and other factors have gotten in the way of fully implementing it.”
Russ Campbell chaired the task force that developed the 2004 flood plan while working for the WV Conservation Agency. After the 2016 flood, he referred to it in an interview with the Charleston Gazette as “sitting on a dusty shelf.”
He relayed a story about running into then-Speaker Tim Armstead during cleanup of the 2016 flood in Elkview. He urged Armstead to revisit the plan, and Armstead did.
The following year, the legislature created the Interim Committee on Flooding. As laid out in WV code 4-15-1, “This committee … shall study all activities relating to flood protection and shall make recommendations to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, which offer solutions to reduce the reality and threat of future loss of life and property damages associated with flooding.”
Bob Martin became the Director of the State Resiliency Office in 2021 and made development of a revised state flood plan one of his office’s priorities.
In May 2022, Pew hosted a symposium in partnership with the State Resiliency Office at the WV Civic Center in Charleston. More than 70 experts from the field of resiliency, mitigation, emergency management, and policy-making attended. One of the main goals of the symposium was to develop a new state flood protection plan.
Martin briefed members of the Legislative Committee on Flooding multiple times about his office’s efforts to update an the flood plan in late 2022 and early 2023.
At the January 2023 committee meeting, Martin told legislators the plan had been updated and would be shared with them shortly. But the updated flood plan was never released.
Visitors to the State Resiliency Office website can click on “Flood Protection Plan,” but the page is empty. It says, “COMING SOON.”
What happened? Senate Bill 677 was introduced by Senator Chandler Swope (R-Mercer), Chair of the Committee on Flooding, six weeks after Martin testified that the flood protection plan had been updated. The bill passed the legislature in early March and was signed by Governor Justice in May 2023, with the support of Pew.
SB677 calls for an updated “state resiliency plan” rather than a “flood protection plan,” negating the planning process which occurred throughout 2022. The intent is to broaden flood protection to the more general category of resiliency, ensuring that all infrastructure projects, for example, promote flood resiliency.
Reached in a phone interview Thursday, Martin said, “We’re now going to have to go in the direction set by state code. We will create it in a way it’s usable and updated regularly.”
SB677 calls for this new resiliency plan to be completed by mid-2024 and updated every two years.
RealWV reached out to the co-chairs of the Committee on Flooding, Senator Swope and Delegate Dean Jeffries (R-Kanahwa) for comment. Neither responded to our request.
Over the past decade, Pew says more than 1,600 floods have occurred in West Virginia. A 2021 study by the First Street Foundation states that West Virginia has the highest flood risk in the United States.
SB677 did not include funding when passed earlier this year. Another flood recovery bill to fund demolition of flooded structures causing community blight never came up for a vote and therefore went unfunded, despite unanimous support from the Committee on Flooding in January 2023.
Pew argues that a plan is a good first step, but the plan must be funded in order to work. They started a petition online in support of funding the plan. It has 620 signatures.
Earlier this spring, Martin asked lawmakers to consider adding funding to the plan if and when surplus funds are available.
According to comments made by Governor Justice this week on West Virginia Day, the state is expected to have a budget surplus of nearly $2 billion by the end of June.
Stay tuned to RealWV for updates on the state resiliency plan.