As thousands of West Virginians try to pick up their lives following the worst flooding in years, a more than decade-old state study of how to reduce the damage from such disasters sits gathering dust on the shelves of government agency offices.
No coordinated, statewide effort was made to implement the dozens of recommendations contained in the “West Virginia Flood Protection Plan.” A task force from 26 agencies that developed the plan disbanded. Legislation to pursue the effort died.
“It never came to pass, and I don’t really know why,” said Russ Campbell, a retired West Virginia Conservation Agency employee who co-chaired the task force that wrote the report. “It’s come home to roost and we’ve got to live with it.”
The 365-page report, released in December 2004, offered a wide collection of broad-brush reform ideas and a long list of detailed, specific proposals: better management of construction in flood plains. Improved flood warning systems. Tougher and better-enforced building codes. New regulations on mining and timbering. Guidelines for the design of stream crossings, access roads and culverts. Limits on stream dredging that, while popular with the public, isn’t always the answer to flooding. More rigorous stormwater flow management. New rules for flood insurance. More public education efforts.
“Even implementing all of the recommendations provided in this plan will not completely eliminate the risk of flooding,” the report concluded. “However, implementing the recommendations included in this plan will reduce the flood-related risks to lives and properties in West Virginia.”
Some changes urged by the report have been pursued, but no one in state government appears to have really kept track of the steps that have yet to be taken.
Some public officials said last week that it’s probably too soon to start talking about such things, while so many West Virginians need help recovering from a monster flood that killed at least 21 people, with two more missing and presumed dead, and turned parts of 12 counties from Clendenin to White Sulphur Springs into federal disaster areas.
West Virginia has a long history of disastrous floods, and of efforts to do something to prevent or minimize them.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, a series of huge federal dams — Bluestone, Summersville, Sutton and others — were constructed that provide flood prevention for the New and Kanawha river valleys, including the state capital in Charleston. Floodwalls were built to protect Ohio River communities like Huntington and, following a devastating flood in 1977, along the Tug Fork at Williamson. The deaths of 125 people when the Pittston Coal slurry dam collapsed in February 1972 on Buffalo Creek in Logan County helped push Congress to pass federal legislation regulating strip mining.
The introduction to the state’s flood protection plan recounted some ominous statistics: Between 1960 and 1996, there were 252 deaths from floods in West Virginia, more than any other state except Texas and California. If the Buffalo Creek disaster is excluded, West Virginia would still rank 10th in flood deaths during this period.
“West Virginia has a long history of deaths, mental trauma, and property damage attributable to flooding,” the report said. “Floods impact or destroy people’s homes, schools, churches, businesses, and places of work. Floods have recurring adverse effects on individual’s physical and mental health. Many flood victims report that they are unable to sleep when it rains because of the potential for disastrous floods like those they have experienced.”
A newer report from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management lists 16 more flood deaths in West Virginia between 1998 and 2011.
“Of the natural hazards facing West Virginia, floods constitute the greatest threat to property and lives,” that 2013 report from homeland security said. “In steep, narrow West Virginia stream valleys, flooding usually occurs quickly and for a short duration, with rapid and deep flooding.”
Some of the recommendations in the flood protection report were really nothing new.
For example, the report urged a five-year program to improve the flood warning system statewide. Sixteen years earlier, improved flood warnings were a central recommendation contained in a U.S. General Accounting Office report that examined West Virginia’s preparation prior to and response after that November 1985 flooding that claimed 47 lives and left 28 counties in north-central and eastern West Virginia as federal disaster areas.
State officials followed at least some of GAO’s recommendations, and today a network of stream gauges maintained by an ad hoc collection of agencies provides real-time data that helps provide flood warnings. But in recent years, agencies have had to cobble together money for that gauge network, and officials say it still hasn’t been expanded as much as it needs to be. For example, the state Conservation Agency recently had to withdraw $125,000 in annual support for the gauges because of cuts in its budget for the new financial year.
“We haven’t lost any gauges, but I don’t know of any large expansions of the system,” said Mark Bennett, director of the local office of the U.S. Geological Survey, which coordinates the gauge system.
At the same time, in its 2013 report on various state hazard mitigation efforts, the homeland security office warned that it remains very challenging to provide adequate warning for some of the types of floods West Virginians could face.
For example, “West Virginia’s topography and development patterns make the state especially vulnerable to flash flooding. Flash floods usually result from intense storms dropping large amounts of rain within a brief period. Antecedent moisture, including saturated or frozen soil conditions, can intensify flash flooding from moderate rainfall events. Flash floods occur with little or no warning and can reach their peak in only a few minutes.”
Also, “Failure of any one of the dams or levees in West Virginia has the potential to inundate the surrounding areas, particularly those that are low-lying. Dam and levee failure can occur with little or no advance warning. There is likely to be some warning for larger dams or levees that are being loaded by water and not performing adequately, but smaller dams in flash-flood areas (or coal impoundments) would have little to no warning.”
As part of a chapter called “Proposed Projects,” the first listing in the flood protection report calls for improvements in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s regulation of the state’s nearly 400 non-coal dams.
The task force recommended that DEP require all dam owners to “upgrade to proper safety standards or remove all deficient dams in order to prevent flooding due to dam failure.”
In September 2012, DEP published its most recent updated list of “deficient dams.” Under DEP rules, such a dam “exhibits one or more design, maintenance, or operational problems that may adversely affect the performance of a dam over a period of time or during a major storm or other inclement weather that may cause loss of life or property” or a dam that “otherwise fails to meet the requirements” of the state’s Dam Control and Safety Act, passed after Buffalo Creek.
The DEP list includes 30 “deficient dams” in 21 counties.
Jake Glance, a DEP spokesman, noted that the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation has implemented another of the flood protection report’s recommendations to DEP. In 2003, lawmakers approved and then-Gov. Bob Wise signed DEP’s proposed changes to its strip-mining rules, aimed to reduce mining’s contributions to flooding. The rules were based on a detailed report put together following major coalfield floods in May and July 2001 that also resulted in a landmark lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court at least twice before ending in a confidential settlement.
At the time of their report, DEP officials had also made a controversial push for West Virginia to improve its regulation of the timber industry. DEP had suggested that state officials strengthen the provisions of the voluntary “best management practices” that the state urges loggers to follow, and put limits on logging within watersheds based on acreage, area of timber removed, and type of logging be included.
When the flood protection plan was published the following year, a section called “Resource Extraction” also urged the state to toughen the way it polices loggers. Among other things, the plan commented that, “the Division of Forestry is currently under-staffed to accomplish all of the inspections, firefighting, and enforcement responsibilities assigned to the division by the state.”
Later this month, 37 forestry employees will be laid off as a result of budget cuts for the new fiscal year, a move that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration has said will hamper oversight of the timber industry.
“The layoffs will undoubtedly have a noticeably adverse effect on the Division of Forestry’s ability to enforce the Logging Sediment Control Act,” said Chelsea Ruby, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, forestry’s parent agency. “It’s relatively certain that the division has lost its capacity to be proactive in preventing environmental damage.”
Large sections of the flood protection plan address a variety of far less interesting items, things like floodplain management, insurance policies, and building codes. If a comprehensive list of how the state responded to the plan’s recommendations in those areas exists, various officials were not able to locate it last week, as most of them were focused on responding to the flood, helping state residents who needed immediate attention.
But Al Lisko, director of mitigation and recovery for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that he believes strides have been made in many of those areas. For example, floodplain management has improved, with all counties adopting ordinances on the issue, and with better-trained staff handling enforcement, Lisko said. The state has a group of experts who work with local officials on the issue.
“I think as a rule, the local governments are doing a better job of their flood plain management,” Lisko said in a phone interview. He added, though, “It varies across the state depending on the local political leadership and the individuals involved.”
Lisko, a state agency veteran, expects to see more attention reverting back to the state flood protection plan in the months ahead.
“I think you’re going to see an effort in that regard,” Lisko said. “It’s going to be very broad spectrum. I hope we’re going to look at this as an opportunity to address some of the ills. What can we do now in some of these communities that will set a model so other communities won’t have to go through this?”
Lisko said, though, that it can be difficult in government to tackle big issues like this when they’re done on a sort of ad hoc basis, instead of as part of a formal process.
“The hard thing is, if you have the proper staffing to do your basic job, then you have an additional responsibility or additional effort, the tendency is to put the time and effort into that, but then you have to go back to your regular job,” Lisko said. After a lengthy meeting, with a thick report to read, if doing so isn’t part of someone’s job description, “it’s like an archaeological dig, and that big document you meant to read just keeps getting buried deeper.”
Just getting a flood control plan for West Virginia written in the first place took more than a few years.
The plan’s “Introduction” explains that an initial draft was prepared in 1993. But, it notes, “A final version of the plan was never produced.”
In 1998, Sen. Robert C. Byrd obtained federal money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with “a comprehensive strategy for reducing economic, property, and personal losses due to flooding in West Virginia.”
The Corps and the Conservation Agency formed a partnership with more than 20 other agencies under the name, “West Virginia Flood Protection Task Force.”
After the 2001 coalfield floods, Wise had the task force refocus its work toward a regional plan “that would significantly reduce the impacts of future flooding on the six counties hardest hit.” The regional plan, completed in 2002, served as a template for the statewide plan.
During the 2003 legislative session, before the statewide plan was completed, a bill (HB2528) was being debated that would have written into state law a 10-member flood prevention task force that would be required to meet at least quarterly to coordinate state efforts to improve flood prevention initiatives and government response to flooding. The bill passed the House unanimously. Then, in the Senate, the bill was amended to add an 11th member, a representative of the West Virginia Forestry Association, an industry group. The bill died.
The next year, in 2004, legislation was introduced to create a similar task force, but with even more members. It did not pass.
During a legislation committee meeting later in 2004, the flood task force — which still was not a permanent entity under state law — provided its report to lawmakers.
The report concluded that the “largely unplanned combination of human settlement, natural resources development and floodplain intrusion has led to flood damages throughout the recorded history of the state.”
“Recurring cycles of statewide damages continue to drain the financial and service resources of the local and state governments and further depress the morale of the citizens,” the report said. “The correction of flood damages within the state is one of many significant issues facing state and local governments.”
That meeting, though, was the end of the task force.
“The task force did not meet after the report,” said Brian Farkas, executive director of the West Virginia Conservation Agency. “They never did.”
Last Thursday, Russ Campbell didn’t get back to his Cross Lanes home until about 10 p.m. He’d been in Elkview all day. Family there were hit by the floods, and he was helping them clean up. A neighbor of theirs needed help, so Campbell stayed late.
Campbell grew up in Harrison County, and worked as a state forester and as one of the first class of federal strip-mine inspectors in the late 1970s. He rejoined state government at the West Virginia Conservation Agency and stayed there until he retired in November 2013. He and his wife recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary. Numerous state officials who were involved in the flood task force described Campbell as the real champion behind the effort.
During one public meeting in 2002, Campbell warned that “it’s not a matter of if, but when, we will incur more disaster” from flooding in West Virginia. At the time, there was some opposition to legislation creating a flood task force, because that ad hoc group was already doing its work and was nearly done with its plan. The legislation, though, was simply aimed at continuing the task force’s work.
Campbell recalls with much regret that there was not a statewide effort coordinated among multiple agencies to try to implement the task force recommendations.
“No one agency had the wherewithal, the money or the resources to fully deal with this, but together, we could put all our hands on the plow and get something done,” Campbell said. “To see it go away ... Once you don’t have a big disaster for a while, people kind of lose interest. You forget the urgency of it.
“I’m sure some of it is pie in the sky, but there’s a lot of good stuff in [the plan] that would really benefit the people,” he said.
Campbell says the task force produced some positive results, such as having so many agencies work together for an extended period of time, so that staffers got to know each other better. “People learned each other’s names,” he said.
While helping his family in the Elkview area on Tuesday, Campbell ran into House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who was also pitching in with cleanup work.
“I said, ‘You know, we’ve got that plan, it’s sitting dusty on a shelf somewhere,’” Campbell said. “I said, ‘There’s a lot of good stuff in that plan.’ He said, ‘I remember that plan.’ He seemed very favorable to it. He said, ‘I may be getting in touch with you.’”
Campbell said, “You can’t prevent a flood, but you can reduce the damage. You can reduce the deaths. You can reduce the devastation.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.