A year into operations, West Virginia’s state office for administering disaster recovery and resiliency money and coordinating flood protection programs is still in adjustment mode as its new leader settles into his role.
Robert Martin, Jr. told lawmakers at a Joint Legislative Flooding Committee meeting Sunday that he was presented with a learning curve upon being named director of the State Resiliency Office on Aug. 14. Martin was put in charge just three months after he joined the office as deputy officer under Bobby Cales, who resigned as state resiliency officer to head the law enforcement section of the state Division of Natural Resources.
“[The] fire hose, I’ve been drinking from it rather rapidly and learning a lot of things about a lot of activities, agencies, procedures that I hadn’t really been accustomed to in the past,” Martin said. “But we’ll get through it, and we’re working diligently to try to make it all happen.”
Martin said the office was eyeing an update of the state’s outdated flood protection plan, breaking down the 365-page plan last updated in 2004 into sections to send out to more than 40 agencies and individuals statewide for their review.
“It hadn’t been looked at in around 20 years, so a lot of things are really antiquated in it,” Martin said, noting the West Virginia Flood Tool, a statewide floodplain mapping project, was developed after the plan was crafted and so has still not been incorporated into it.
Martin said local floodplain managers are reviewing the flood protection plan.
He indicated a State Resiliency Office working group was crafting a statewide debris management program and observed that streams and culverts may not be getting cleared prior to storms that cause flooding.
Coordination with Department of Transportation and municipal officials will be necessary to address that issue, Martin said, adding that some of the problem stems from streams and culverts that get blocked up on private land.
“We see a lot of small streams that get really huge that move into the town because local people put little bridges up over the little streams that are normally no problem, but a 36-inch culvert with a bunch of debris in front of it all of a sudden becomes a 4-foot wall of water once it breaks loose,” Martin said. “That’s [one] of the things that we’ve gotta try to address with this debris management plan.”
Martin acknowledged the three-member State Resiliency Office is “not very big” and that he is searching for a deputy officer to take the position he vacated to become office director last month.
“Long-term recovery plan, we’re not there,” Martin said. “We don’t have a long-term recovery plan to be able to put all these pieces in place and have an overarching plan for the entire state.”
The “biggest thing” Martin said he has been involved in during his four months with the office has been a project to construct a 1.5-mile-long earthen levee along the Lower Mud River, in the Milton area, to reduce flood risk.
Martin indicated property surveys would soon be undertaken, and work will require officials to take or get rights-of-way for more than 100 properties for the project, which will incorporate a 4,100-foot section of new river channel above Bill Blenko Drive Bridge.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established a partnership with Milton city and West Virginia state officials in January 2020 that will fund the project’s design, construction and future maintenance. Gov. Jim Justice pledged $43 million to the project to be allocated by the Legislature. Cost estimates for the project have reached up to $143 million.
The city has a long history of devastating flooding, and a major flood in 1997 caused more than $40 million in damage in today’s costs.
No Joint Legislative Flooding Committee members had any questions for Martin, who addressed the committee after an hour-long presentation and follow-up testimony regarding the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program from Jennifer Farrell, director of the Community Advancement and Development division of the West Virginia Development Office, and Michelle Penaloza of the Development Office.
State law passed in 2017 established the State Resiliency Office, but it did not become operational until May 2020.
The office became embroiled in controversy over delays in implementation of RISE West Virginia, a $150 million federal flood recovery effort to repair and reconstruct single-family housing and rental units damaged in the June 2016 flood.
The Department of Commerce, within which the State Resiliency Office was created, halted office activities in February 2018. Then-acting Commerce Secretary Clayton Burch recommended that West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer take over the board that oversees the office in June 2018, after Justice ousted former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, who chaired the board, amid fallout over the RISE program.
Thrasher had written to then-flood-committee chairman Ed Gaunch in 2018, saying the office’s goal was to “transition from blueprints to reality.”
Cales took over as state resiliency officer after the office was rebooted last year.