This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Mike Tony was originally published as part of the Charleston Gazette-Mail's "Facing Flooding" series, where it appears with additional photos and resources.
West Virginia’s flood damages in the past two decades have been devastating.
The state suffered over 2,100 flood and flash flood events that resulted in 39 deaths and over $464.1 million in property damage from 2004 through March 2023, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
Floods are longer-term events that may last days or weeks, while flash floods are caused by heavy rainfall in a short period of time, usually under six hours.
The state developed its flood protection plan in 2004, but officials have ignored most of it.
Just 14% of the plan’s approximately 140 components were addressed or completed, according to a synthesis of feedback compiled by Pew Charitable Trusts from flood preparedness and response experts in academia, nongovernmental groups and state and local government.
The nongovernmental public policy group gathered that feedback at a flood symposium it cohosted with the State Resiliency Office and SBP, a national disaster recovery firm, in Charleston last year.
Participants at the symposium, where attendee discussions were closed to media, cited lack of coordination and clearly identified leadership on flood preparedness issues as a barrier to progress across 2004 plan goals, according to the synthesis.
State officials and stakeholders stressed unclear roles and responsibilities were a significant barrier to stormwater and flood management. But potential solutions emerged during and after the symposium that point the way toward greater protection in West Virginia as the flood-prone state contends with aging flood maps, disproportionately low flood insurance uptake and an unforgiving topography.
Now it’s up to the state to fund them.
“And if it is not funded, then it’s meaningless,” West Virginia University assistant professor of forest hydrology Nicolas Zegre said.
Pew Charitable Trusts said participants identified a need for the state to invest in local floodplain management capacity and provide for enhanced training for local floodplain managers. Floodplain managers typically rely on zoning or building requirements and floodplain ordinances to guard against flood damage.
Participants said training should include offerings through not only an Association of State Floodplain Managers program but West Virginia-specific floodplain management training reflecting the state’s mountainous terrain and waterway network.
They reported undersized culverts and insufficient mechanisms accounting for stormwater runoff, according to Pew’s report. The report also noted calls on the state and localities to invest in maintenance to prevent clogs that can cause flooding.
Steve Neddo, Kanawha County’s planning director, said flooding often is caused by man-made issues like improperly placed or undersized culverts and bridges.
“Culverts are a big problem,” Kanawha County Floodplain Manager Bruce White agreed, sitting next to Neddo in a downtown Charleston county office room.
“[It’s] simple things like people not cleaning out their culverts and letting sediment just slowly build up,” Neddo said, noting that mud and sediment can reduce a 15-inch culvert to essentially half its size, stripping it of water retention capacity.
Recommendations resulting from the symposium included culvert and stormwater sizing, establishing a master list of infrastructure projects prioritized by county and addressing aging storm drains with grate designs. The latter should aim to prevent debris buildup and to protect humans from potentially being pinned to the grate in a flash flood.
Participants also called for the state to advocate for nature-based flood solutions, which include restoring watersheds and wetlands, reforestation, roadside plants and other practices that limit runoff.
Zegre suggested watershed restoration as a tool to limit erosion in a phone interview. He also recommended restoring forested areas of land next to rivers and streams as a path to slowing down water velocity.
Symposium participants cited stream restoration as a chance to limit flood risk. They prioritized streams in flood-prone areas for regular monitoring and sharing monitoring data across agencies to use to inform permitting decisions.
Zegre touted leaky dams, a natural flood management approach in which trees or logs in a water channel slow down water flow.
Artificial dams, of which there are hundreds in West Virginia, are another means of flood control.
But nearly half of West Virginia dams have been identified as having high hazard downstream potential, according to a proposed update to the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan that emergency officials plan to use to identify and implement risk reduction projects.
FEMA categorizes downstream hazard potential into three categories: low, significant and high.
Of West Virginia’s 632 dams, 296 are in the latter category, according to the proposed plan update published by the state Emergency Management Division.
The state Department of Environmental Protection evaluates dams based on hazard potential related to potential for downstream flooding rather than the structural integrity of the dam, the proposed update noted.
The Emergency Management Division listed 26 dam failure events in West Virginia since 1890 and none since 2009. The agency noted that many older dams aren’t designed to modern standards and may not withstand extreme weather events — and that flooding and precipitation events are projected to increase.
“This increased dam failure risk from projected flooding and precipitation events can lead to loss of life and property; impacts to the economy, infrastructure, and community; loss of water resources; and loss of flood protection,” the proposed plan update noted. “With these projections, more intense events, combined with the aging dam infrastructure, could result in more dam failure incidents.”
The plan update reported West Virginia’s total replacement cost value for state facilities within dam failure inundation areas is roughly $983 million.
The state plans to seek FEMA grant funding to address five high-hazard dams, officials noted during a listening session on the plan update proposal Friday.