Flood Towns Struggle with Infrastructure as Federal Deadline Passes

Aug 8, 2016

FEMA-- the Federal Emergency Management Agency-- is well known for its individual housing assistance program- a federal program that helps homeowners and renters who have lost their housing and belongings in natural disasters, but the agency has another program that helps states and local governments rebuild.

The application deadline for FEMA's public assistance program was Monday and many small communities throughout the state are dependent on those funds after June's historic flooding.

Richwood, W.Va.

In the Cherry River just outside of Richwood, a concrete dam creates a small waterfall. The water flows over the dam, down massive, sand colored rocks and fills two crystal clear swimming holes. The scene is idyllic, but the sound is not so ideal.  

A temporary pump sits below the dam that before June 23 sat next to Richwood's public drinking water intake on the Cherry River. Now the pump is supplying the city's tap water until a replacement can be installed.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Behind the dam is a massive metal pipe that served as the intake for Richwood’s public drinking water system. But that pipe was damaged in late June when heavy rains caused large rocks to rush down the river. Those waters later flooded many parts of Richwood. Now, a temporary pump sits next to one swimming hole, pumping water to the city’s taps.

“We’re going to get another one that’s boxed,” Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber explained over the noise of the pump, “and also that might take us through the winter because this one won’t and we’re not sure how fast we’re going to get this fixed up here on the intake.”

Baber estimates his town in total suffered more than $15 million in damage to public infrastructure and government buildings, but the loss of both the Richwood Middle and High Schools will make the total much higher.

Clendenin, W.Va.

But it’s not just Richwood that suffered millions of dollars in damage to public infrastructure. Gary Bledsoe is the Mayor of Clendenin in Kanawha County.

Clendenin Mayor Gary Bledsoe speaks with FEMA PIO Tom Kempton just a week after heavy rains caused historic flooding in his town.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It could be pushing as high as $2 million. It’s well over a million now with just what we’ve turned in so far,” Bledsoe said.

That money will be needed for repairs to road slips, the restoration of its community rec center, and rehabilitation of the first floor of city hall. For now, the mayor’s office is in a garage around the corner.

FEMA’s Public Assistance Program

Communities like Richwood and Clendenin can’t pay for those repairs on their own, though. Both mayors say after June’s floods they’re not sure how they’re even going to make payroll through the end of the year, let alone replace a $250,000 rec center. That’s where FEMA’s Public Assistance program comes in.

“Public Assistance is to repair the public infrastructure, those large items that particularly in this disaster such as schools, bridges, roads, the infrastructure that’s been so severely hit in this state because of the flooding,” FEMA Public Information Officer Tom Kempton explained.

So far, the total damage to roads and bridges in flood affected counties is estimated at more than $54 million by the Department of Transportation.

The West Virginia School Building Authority says a new high school costs around $30 million and a new middle or elementary school from $5-10 million. At least five schools in two counties have been closed as a result of the storm.

Cleaning equipment sits outside the entrance to Richwood High School which will not reopen this fall.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Kempton explained it’s these types of infrastructure and public needs that will quickly escalate the total price of recovery. Through the public assistance program, FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost for public projects. Normally, the state matches with 25 percent, but Governor Tomblin has asked the federal government to bump the match up to 90/10.

Tomblin representatives said last week total damage estimates must reach more than $250 million before FEMA will grant the higher matching rate, but Kempton said West Virginia’s economic climate will also play a role in that decision.

“If you look at the kind of damage within, say Kanawha County where they have a large range of very expensive projects, schools that have been pretty much destroyed, those are going to be prioritized and does the county have that match?” he said.

“Can the county come up with 35 percent of the cost to redo all those facilities? That’d be very difficult for even a wealthy county to do.”

Restoration

Many of the flood affected communities were struggling with insufficient infrastructure and public buildings before the storm. Mayor Baber said that was certainly the case with his sewer system.

Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber surveys the damage to a home a hillside collapsed into after heavy rains.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

FEMA has been clear- they will pay to restore damaged infrastructure, leaving communities with something equal to what they had before, but Baber worries that won’t be enough.

“What does that mean when you’ve got a system that’s so antiquated? I mean, we’re putting patches on patches on patches so this is hard to know what’s going to happen here,” Baber said.

“We’ve reached the point where I just don’t know how many more patches we can put on patches. How many more band aids can you put on band aids when you’re hemorrhaging?”

The deadline for communities to file for public assistance through FEMA was Monday, August 8.

State revenue officials say even if West Virginia does not receive the 90/10 match from FEMA for those projects, there is enough cash in the Rainy Day Fund to help struggling communities recover.