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West Virginia Flooding – The Present Danger

If your neighbor says he’s not worried about climate change because West Virginia isn’t on the Atlantic coast, he hasn’t been keeping up with the news. Coastal flooding isn’t the issue. The real issue is flash flooding from our creeks and rivers. Not only is West Virginia vulnerable, we’re one of the riskiest states in the nation.

The atmosphere that surrounds us is getting warmer. That’s really what “climate change” is, and there is no debate it is happening. A warmer surface temperature causes more evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere, which means rainfall can be intensified. Every 1 degree rise in temperature means the air can hold 4% to 5% more moisture.1   And since the average surface temperature was more than 2 degrees warmer in 2020 than it was in 1920, there can be nearly 9% more moisture in the rain clouds above us.2

It is these more frequent, huge downpours that cause flash floods in our creeks and rivers. These waterways can overflow their banks in a matter of minutes. The rapid onset of flash floods limits the time people can get to safety.

West Virginia suffered 380 flash floods from 2019 to 2023, an average of one every 4.8 days. That was a 26% increase over the 301 flash floods NOAA recorded in the previous 5-year period and a 51% increase over the 252 recorded for the 5-year span before that.3

During this period flash floods caused 24 deaths and over $98 million in property damage, according to NOAA. Those flooding events don’t include the June 2016 flood that left 23 dead and temporarily made more than 2,000 people homeless, since NOAA didn’t count that event as a flash flood.

Death and homelessness are just the half of it. According to a 2021 First Street Foundation study, West Virginia’s infrastructure is uniquely vulnerable to a 100-year flood like the one that actually happened in 2016: 61% power stations would be at risk of shutdown, 46% of roads would be at risk of being inoperable, as would 57% of fire stations, 50% of police stations and 38% of schools. In the wake of flooding there are also impaired emergency services, interruption of food supplies and health services, and a range of other major disruptions to daily life.

Clearly, we need to adopt policies that slow or reverse dangerous warming. But in the meantime, shouldn’t we do something to protect ourselves from the high risk of flooding? Flood resilience and mitigation makes economic sense. For every $1 spent in mitigation, such as acquiring and demolishing flood prone buildings, society saves $6 in flood cleanup costs.4

In 2023, the West Virginia Legislature unanimously passed SB 672, which created the Flood Resiliency Trust Fund to prioritize nature-based flood protection and prevention for low-income areas. But the Legislature hasn’t put any money into the Trust Fund, even though Governor Justice’s 2024 budget proposed $50 million for it.5

The sooner money gets into this Fund, the safer our homes and communities will be from the effects of climate change. Our Legislature needs to hear from us. Tell your Senator or Delegate to take some action on the Flood Resiliency Trust Fund without further delay.