Gazette editorial: Floods part of climate change in WV

A flooded intersection in downtown Richwood on Friday, June 24.

Several national climate experts said the severity of the Mountain State devastation during the recent flood was almost certainly worsened by human-caused global warming.

Climate change contributes to more extreme storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and other weather-related dangers. That means West Virginia is among the places where effects of climate change are being felt by people now, not in some distant, hypothetical future.

West Virginia terrain has always been prone to flash floods, as residents well remember and as the Sunday Gazette-Mail documented back to 1916. In Appalachia’s mountains, people live on slopes and in valleys, making them vulnerable to random, unpredictable washouts. Ominously, the menace may worsen as climate change proceeds.

Internationally, world leaders are pledging all-out efforts to reduce fossil fuel burning, which releases greenhouse gases that cause the planetary heat-up. That’s a long-term solution, long overdue, that could alter the trajectory of change people are already seeing.

Closer to home, West Virginia leaders must plan, invest, and stay attentive even after the sun comes out and rivers lose their muddy color.

First, look at that 2004 plan. Several state agencies drafted a West Virginia Statewide Flood Protection Plan in 2004, but it was generally ignored. We were glad to hear House Speaker Tim Armstead express interest in looking at that work.

The plan would toughen building codes to make valley structures more flood-proof, impose mining and timbering rules to lessen rapid runoff, improve streams to handle gushers, and improve flood insurance and flood education.

Second, pay attention to a 2013 state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management report on potential disaster threats. It notes that “Climate change is both a present threat and a slow-onset disaster. It acts as an amplifier of existing natural hazards.”

This would be a pleasant change for West Virginians. Most of the state’s leaders from Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito down to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and many legislators dismiss, or openly mock, the life’s work of climate scientists who are better educated and informed on the subject than any of them.

Third, stop playing keep away with the state budget. Most state agencies have absorbed several years of budget cuts. Lawmakers have dithered for two years, dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund to cover usual and customary operating expenses, rather than figure out how to replace $300 million in annual business tax cuts (much-heralded when they were passed, including by us).

The Republican-led Legislature talked big on cutting waste, the virtues of small government and drawing more jobs and therefore revenue to the state. By all means, we always want to report on economic expansion and see efficiency in all things.

But for a government to function efficiently, it has to function well, and that requires proper funding and maintenance of things the people need.

Look at some of the agencies people depend on before, during and after a flood: State Police, West Virginia National Guard, Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Early Flood Warning System, Bureau for Public Health, Department of Environmental Protection and the state Conservation Agency.

They have all had level funding or absorbed significant budget cuts in recent years. They still showed up and did their jobs. But many needed services are not as robust or as well-maintained as they have been.

While people are literally grieving their dead and scraping mud from whatever they have salvaged, it is the duty of those high and dry, especially those elected to serve, to act on the lessons of past disasters.

Residents need their elected leaders to stop wasting time shaking their fists at the clouds and at the rest of the world.

Every day spent running down the scientific process, every day spent railing against government instead of making it function well, is an opportunity missed to help West Virginians get themselves as prepared as possible for the next storm, whatever form it takes.

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