Randy Yohe Published

Flood Protection On List Of Upcoming W.Va. Legislative Interim Meetings


Among the meetings scheduled for next week’s legislative interim session is the Joint House and Senate Committee on Flooding.

With flash flooding seemingly on the rise throughout West Virginia, Randy Yohe spoke with committee member Sen. Stephen Baldwin. The Democrat and Senate Minority Leader from Greenbrier County has been at the forefront on meeting the challenges of flood prevention.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Yohe: West Virginia leads the nation in flooding disasters over the past decade. Is that just because we’re the Mountain State and valleys come with mountains, or are we lacking in mitigation plans and efforts?

Baldwin: Both. It’s a result of our topography and geography. There are just some things we cannot change about that. But I think we can do a better job of planning and mitigating through our infrastructure. And that’s the point of all these projects, rebuilding homes, elevating them, tearing down structures that were in the floodplain or in the floodway. And then allowing folks to rebuild in a place that has stormwater systems, roadways, culverts, infrastructure, streams, creeks or there is a dam.There’s a very long list of infrastructure items we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen as much in the future to the extent we can control it.

Yohe: That leads into the question that we often hear after flash floods and the damage and even deaths that they cause. Talking about preventive stream cleaning and mismanaged floodplain construction, but often it seems there’s little action. Do we need to legislate a dedicated act, a law that funds those flood mitigation efforts?

Baldwin: I was very encouraged to hear Senator Swope say last time that flood relief and flood mitigation needs to be one of our major infrastructure categories moving forward. I agree with him wholeheartedly, not just generally, but specifically in relation to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that we’ve received. Because this is going to save lives in the future and it’s going to save a significant amount of money because as you said, we deal with this all the time. If we do a better job planning on the front end, I think we’re better prepared. And the state resiliency office is in the midst right now of finalizing a new flood plan. When the June 2016 flood hit, we had a plan that was sitting on a shelf for years and wasn’t being enacted. So I think that’s the key. We’ve got to have a plan. And we’ve got to have people involved actively in executing that plan.

Yohe: Any key mitigation elements in that plan, current day technologies, like the new stream gauges and otherwise that need implementation and action right away?

Baldwin: We’ve done a little bit. That’s a good example of stream gauges. We’ve done a little bit of work on that over the last couple of years because what we had before, if you look at the old plan that was sitting on a shelf, it actually had recommendations about stream gauges. Unfortunately, they weren’t realized. So we had stream gauges on rivers, but where we are seeing flooding now are not necessarily along our major rivers, but along our streams and creeks. And so that’s where we did not have gauges. So we have added some gauges since the June 2016 flood in areas that flooded. But, we need more, badly. That’s a good example of a growing edge of infrastructure.

Yohe: You can gauge the challenge on a creek or stream. Gauging is one thing, cleaning it out is another, isn’t it?

Baldwin: It is, and that falls to the Conservation Department, which is an important partner in flood mitigation. However, that’s one of the first things that people always talk about is dredging, we need to do a better job of dredging. If you look at the data, and you look back at that previous flood mitigation plan and the plan that they’re working on now, I’m not sure that the reality matches what we think it is. I’m not sure that dredging is the silver bullet that we think it is. It’s important, but, again, I just don’t think it’s that silver bullet.

Yohe: The agenda for the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding includes you presenting an update on ARPA funds for demolition. What’s that about?

Baldwin: We are hoping to get a pot of money to be able to do flood demolitions that the Commerce Department could not do with the funds they received from the federal government. Basically, they didn’t have enough money to do everything. So we want to propose to the legislature and the governor that we set aside some money specifically to do that from our funds.

Yohe: How do you think the national rise in climate change impacts West Virginia flooding?

Baldwin: If you look at the data, it shows that we are on the leading edge of this with West Virginia having the highest risk for flooding in the United States. And I certainly think climate change plays a part in that. We have seen more storms, with higher intensity, higher volume of rain, for example, getting nine inches in a couple of hours. So the frequency and intensity of storms has changed. And that has a huge effect on us when you consider our geography and topography. We obviously had a major flood in 2016. That affected a huge portion of the state. But we have had significant flooding events across the state since then: obviously in Huntington, in your area, in southern West Virginia, McDowell County just a couple of weeks ago. So this is continually happening. And we have got to continue to make it a priority rather than just being reactive.