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Flooding in West Virginia is expected to only get worse in the future, according to Nicolas Zegre, WVU associate professor of Forest Hydrology. That was his message to the members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding during Sunday’s interim meetings.
From January 2007, until March 2022 there were 1,683 floods throughout West Virginia. Since the 2016 flood, Zegre said the state has experienced 968 floods. On average, every county in the state has experienced 31 floods over the last 15 years. Those floods have taken 34 lives and caused in excess of $54 million in damage.
“It’s really important to recognize that this is just property damage,” Zegre said. “This doesn’t also consider a disruption to the economy through the disruptions of flooding.”
He noted that of those floods, 851 were riverine floods in the large river systems with 12 deaths and upwards of $19 million in property damage. Flash floods have accounted for 22 deaths and upwards of $35 million worth of damage.
“We really need to recognize that flash floods are West Virginia’s greatest hazards,” he said. “They represent nearly half of all floods, but 65 percent of fatalities and 65 percent of property damage.”
Zegre explained that the increase in floods is related to the relationship between air temperatures and water vapor. He said the state has increased its mean annual temperature by one degree Fahrenheit since pre-industrial days.
“This is unequivocally related to the increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere,” he said. “With warmer temperatures, we have more evaporation coming from the land surface, principally from our forests that cover about 85 percent of the state. This means a small change in air temperature has a disproportionately large change in water vapor. A one degree change in air temperature translates to about 4 percent more water being stored in that atmosphere.”
He said the relationship between air temperature and water vapor means that extreme rainfall is increasing. A recent study published earlier this year showed that Huntington has some of the greatest increases in hourly rainfall and intensity in the United States. Rainfall since 1970 has increased by 28 percent in the city.
Zegre explained that the problem with this extreme rainfall is that flooding is only going to get worse in West Virginia. By 2050, in Kanawha County alone, it’s projected upwards of 5,000 properties are at risk of flooding. What this also means is that West Virginia has the highest flood vulnerability in the country, which is equal to Louisiana.
An analysis suggested 46 percent of the state’s roads are at risk for flooding, 57 percent of state fire stations, 56 percent of police stations, 38 percent of schools and 37 percent of commercial property.
Another speaker during the meeting was Carlos Castillo. He is the chief development officer and senior vice president for Tidal Basin Government Consulting and he was there to speak about ways to mitigate damage from flooding.
“There was a FEMA mitigation study from the National Institute for Building Sciences that came and said every dollar spent on mitigation resulted in $4 savings,” he said. “When it was more recently done in 2019, it came back as six to one. It doesn’t take into account the number of lives saved through mitigation.”
Castillo explained that there are millions of dollars available through the federal government to prepare for floods. Most of it requires a 25 percent match from the state, although some programs only require a 10 percent match.
Matthew Sanders, senior manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts gave the legislators an overview of the West Virginia Flood Symposium.
“Flooding is the costliest and most common natural hazard in the United States, costing the nation more than $1 trillion in damages and economic losses,” he said. “Since the year 2000, flood damages and losses affect every state in the United States. And in the last four years alone, all 50 states have been covered under a federal major disaster declaration.”
He further explained that West Virginia is one of, if not the most, flood prone states in the United States.
“You can see in terms of people that are exposed to flood risk, there’s a high concentration throughout Appalachia, and specifically here in West Virginia,” he said. “So it’s a place that we don’t think really receives enough attention on a national scale relative to the flood risks that you all face here.”