On June 23, 2016, West Virginia experienced some of the worst flooding in the state’s storied history. During the past 52 years, 282 West Virginians have died in floods, including the 23 who perished last summer after historic water levels led to a federal disaster declaration in 12 counties.
Nine months later, communities are still recovering from the high water.
During a budget hearing in February, Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato told lawmakers once the state reaches a damage estimate of $150 million, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin funding recovery efforts at a 90-10 match, with 90 percent of the funds coming from the federal government, 10 percent from the state.
“The current numbers, we’re at about 53 percent of that," Gianato said. "The schools are the big-dollar factor involved here, which will probably go close to $200 million when we finish that out.”
Five schools were destroyed and students are largely still in temporary classrooms.
Lawmakers in the House, however, are not waiting for those totals to move forward with plans to help mitigate the level of damage the state could face in the future, including Del. Stephen Baldwin from hard-hit Greenbrier County.
“After the flood, I found out that there had been a flood protection [plan] sitting on the shelf for years and like everybody else, I was floored,” he said.
Baldwin is talking about a 2004 flood protection plan, the product of a 26-agency task force developed to respond to flooding in the state.
Del. Brent Boggs said he remembers when the 365-page document was presented to the Legislature.
"I know it was a comprehensive document, several hundred pages, and it had a lot of good recommendations," he said, "but like a lot of things in government, a lot of it was shelved.”
After the 2016 floods, interest in that shelved document re-ignited, from Speaker Armstead in particular whose hometown of Elkview experienced its highest level of flood waters in nearly 100 years.
Armstead said that’s why he’s introduced House Bill 2935, to implement the recommendations of the 2004 report.
“We know we can’t prevent them, but there are things we can do to lessen the blow of flooding, to make sure people are well advised when a flood is about to occur and to really just learn from the things we’ve learned from these disasters,” he said.
Armstead’s bill creates a state Flood Protection Planning Council made up of representatives from the Division of Natural Resources, state Conservation Agency, Department of Environmental Protection and others. Its chair would be required to report quarterly to a new interim legislative committee on flooding.
Armstead approached several members of the chamber from flood-affected areas to join him in sponsoring the legislation, including Baldwin who said the communication portion of the bill to him is key.
“In our experience in Greenbrier County, communities were literally cut off from one another by the water. There was no power or phone lines, there was no good way to communicate with one another," he said.
"So what we were lacking form both a governmental and a nongovernmental perspective was the ability to coordinate and communicate in terms of our flood relief efforts.”
With bipartisan support, Armstead believes the bill will make it through the legislative process, despite the fact that it has yet to be taken up by a committee.
“We may have disagreements on other issues, but I think when it comes to protecting our citizens form natural disasters like this, I think we all work together," he said.
Boggs, a Democrat from Braxton County and a sponsor of the bill, said even though his district wasn’t impacted by the 2016 flood, all of the state’s 55 counties have been affected by high water at some point.
“So, I think that we need to really get on board with this and provide a legislative mechanism to work with all of the entities, pull out the flood plan again and then go over it jointly and implement as much of it as we possibly can and make the citizen aware, make the counties aware and let the state know that we are doing our job," he said.
Armstead’s bill has been referred to the House Government Organization Committee, but hasn’t been placed on an agenda so far this session. The last day to approve bills in the originating chamber is March 29.