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"Political will," funding needed to combat increased flooding issues, experts say

Flooding in Virginia Beach neighborhood
Flooding in the The Lakes neighborhood of Virginia Beach from the remnants of Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 9, 2016. This was the most significant flood in this neighborhood in decades. (Photo: Jason Boleman / Capital News Service)

Yvonne Rife was in the attic holding her dog Lucy when her Buchanan County home was swept off its foundation by the water and floated a quarter of a mile. 

A large oak tree lodged in a trestle bridge eventually halted the home, she said. She lost everything, including two cats, the house she lived in for over 40 years and the precious memories it contained. 

Rife’s cousin, Opal Mildred Rife, died that day.

Seventy residences were destroyed or seriously damaged last August in Hurley, a small community located in Southwest Virginia. A heavy downpour combined with mudslides over the course of a few hours resulted in a flood like Rife said she’s never seen before.

“I was hitting things and things were hitting me, just all this scratching and banging,” Rife said. “It was worse than any carnival ride.”

Extreme precipitation events — such as the one in Hurley — are becoming more common due to climate change. Environmental advocates and some officials warn that means more flooding, costing Virginia billions of dollars and threatening residents’ safety. Unless protection efforts receive proper funding soon, they warn, the problem will only get worse.

Rising waters

The total annual precipitation in Virginia has trended slightly upward since 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The wettest consecutive five-year period in the state's history was recorded between 2016 and 2020. The highest rates of 2-inch extreme precipitation events were recorded between 2015 and 2020 and are projected to increase over time.

TV weather reports estimated the area around Guesses Fork Road in Hurley received as much as 7 inches of rain in a few hours. Similar events have happened all over the state, like in 2019 when a month’s worth of rain fell around the Northern Virginia area in an hour, turning roads into rivers, flooding basements and causing massive sinkholes, according to the Washington Post.

Heavy rain in Radford during 2013 caused the New River to overflow, consuming parks, the Radford Animal Shelter and more than 100 cars, according to WSET.

Prolonged, intense rainfall can inundate areas throughout the state with flooding, caused when runoff overwhelms natural or built drainage systems, according to the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan. Heavy rainfall can also cause rivers and streams to overflow and lead to flooding.

Rising costs

Flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster, according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. It is estimated that 1 inch of water in a home can cause upwards of $25,000 in damages.

Rife estimates she lost over $500,000 during the flood between the home, property and total belongings. She said she canceled her flood insurance months before the incident due to financial struggles, leaving her with no coverage on the day she most needed it.

 The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied requests for private assistance for residents of Hurley, and said the flooding lacked “severity and magnitude.” Donations and efforts from churches, individuals and the United Way of Southwest Virginia have supported residents for months. FEMA distributed public assistance funds for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities.

While projects aimed at preventing damages from flooding could cost the commonwealth billions, not investing in them would cost significantly more, said Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan.

The annual cost of flood damages annually to residential, public and commercial buildings near the coast is projected to increase by over 930% from $550 million to $5.7 billion by 2080, according to the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan.

“When you talk to FEMA, they say for every dollar invested now, you’re saving between $7 to $10 of post-disaster recovery money,” McClellan said.

Hurley “still looks like a war zone” eight months after the event, Rife said. The town has not received enough assistance from the county, state or federal government, she said. 

“We are tired of waiting and we’re just praying that we do get help,” Rife said. 

The underlying issue, according to McClellan and other climate advocates, is there is not nearly enough funding from the state to support current flood survivors and invest in protection projects.

Where’s the money?

Virginia never prioritized funding flood protection projects until the Community Flood Preparedness Fund was created in 2020, McClellan said. Proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are the sole source of financing for the fund, which has received approximately $142 million since March 2021, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

“The bad news is, one project in my neighborhood costs $80 million,” McClellan said

Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-Accomack), sponsored the 2020 bill which initiated Virginia’s participation in RGGI. He agrees there isn’t enough money in the fund to deal with all flood projects across the commonwealth, but its establishment is a big step forward compared to a few years ago.

“Before we had the fund, we had zero,” Lewis said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has called to end Virginia’s participation in RGGI. He signed an executive order which failed to take effect, and then released a report from the DEQ which outlined reasons why the initiative would not benefit taxpayers.

It would be detrimental for Virginia to withdraw from RGGI, said Jay Ford, Virginia policy and grassroots adviser for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat that we are not where we should be in our response to rising waters and recurrent flooding,” Ford said. “The consequences would be significant.”

The flood fund is constructed to receive financial support from the federal government as well, Lewis said, but it hasn’t collected any as of recently.

A bill passed this session establishing the Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund, sponsored by Lewis and Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax). It will give loans and grants to localities to build projects for resilience purposes, including flood mitigation. 

The House of Delegates budget currently allocates $25 million and the state Senate $10 million towards the fund in its first year.

Localities are sometimes able to access federal funding in the event of a natural disaster, such as when FEMA provided assistance after Tropical Storm Gaston struck Virginia in 2004, as well as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

The Olde Towne Stormwater Pump Station in the City of Portsmouth received over $7 million from a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant. The improvement of the drainage system showcases how federal funding can support the construction of critical flood protection projects.

“Federal funding can be helpful, but is not a consistent revenue stream,” Ford said.

Hurley residents waited nearly six months before U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), along with Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), announced in February that Hurley would receive $174,458 in funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Republicans in Virginia’s House proposed $11.4 million in state funding explicitly for survivors of the flood in Hurley. That allocation is one of many differences being ironed out by House and Senate budget negotiators. Del. Will Morefield (R-Tazewell) initially introduced legislation to create a designated fund for flood victims using RGGI money. Morefield requested to table the bill after determining “a clearer path in securing private assistance” for Hurley residents.

The solutions

Faith Williams Schesventer is the Hampton Roads community organizer for Mothers Out Front, a mother-led volunteer group aimed at developing solutions to create a livable climate. 

She is proud of the work MOF has accomplished, like creating alternative school bus routes for when streets flood, but acknowledged that large-scale change comes from protections and funding implemented through legislation. 

Lawmakers should look at what grassroots organizations like MOF are doing and use it to inform policy, Williams Schesventer said.

“If they looked into the communities and all the solutions that are already there,” Williams Schesventer said, “then we would have it all figured out, right?”

Implementing tree steward programs is a step towards mitigating the effects of flooding, said Desiree Shelley, community organizer for MOF in Roanoke.

Restoring deforested and degraded areas along river banks would serve as a buffer to prevent runoff, Shelley said.

Parking lots help drive flooding as well, but Shelley said design changes, such as using permeable pavers that allow water to be absorbed into the ground, can help prevent that.

The Agrarian Commons, a nationwide effort with members in Virginia, works to put land into a trust so that it stays within a sustainable agriculture model unthreatened by development – another solution Shelley said can help the effort.

In Norfolk, a federal grant funds the Ohio Creek Watershed Project, which protects the area from increased flood hazards and connects the Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village neighborhoods with a multi-use park that could be used for community gatherings, McClellan said.

Virginia Beach residents approved a referendum last year that will allow the city to issue up to $567 million in bonds to cover the cost of a flood protection program designed to deal with stormwater and sea-level rise issues.

The bond issuances will increase real estate taxes for residents over the next decade to fund over 20 flood protection projects.

The new normal

“Flooding in the Hampton Roads area is a regular life occurrence,” Williams Schesventer said. “Anything from water into the yards to being completely immobilized.”

Another challenge to building protection efforts is that some people accept heavy precipitation and flooding as normal events, not as a direct result of climate change, Shelley said. She said that’s made worse by policy makers and citizens who deny climate change even exists.

“If we have to keep pretending that flooding is just this random thing that’s happening and we don’t know why it's happening, it’s really hard for us to have a real conversation about what we are going to do about it,” Shelley said.

Williams Schesventer has heard from community members sometimes stuck at home for days because of flooding. Homeowners, especially those without flood insurance, are left with costly repairs when rooms or basements flood.

One of McClellan’s constituents took their paddle board out to the bus stop to get their kids home because of flooding, she said. 

Flooding also leads to school cancellations, which families said hurt their kids’ academic progress, according to Williams Schesventer. 

Flooding can cause long-term health complications, as well. Mold and mildew were present inside the homes of about a third of Portsmouth households where a child has asthma, according to a 2021 Old Dominion University study. Researchers reported the prevalence of pediatric asthma in the Hampton Roads area is above the state average and that children in low-income households were more likely to be affected. The authors said the study should “ring alarm bells.”

Williams Schesventer said flooding shows how failing to protect our environment can have wide-ranging consequences.

“All of everything is affected by climate change,” Williams Schesventer said.

Moving forward

McClellan emphasized the importance of getting lawmakers to truly understand the consequences of inaction when it comes to funding these efforts.

“What we really need is the political will,” McClellan said. “That is a piece of the puzzle that has been missing.”

The lack of acknowledgement and flood protection funding can be frustrating, Shelley said, but it’s important to realize that climate change might not be the first thing on people’s mind when other issues are directly affecting them.

“We’re in a pandemic, and people are just trying to survive day to day,” Shelley said.

While people can understandably feel overwhelmed, getting in touch with legislators to let them know this is a priority is important, Ford said.

“We are gonna make some concrete steps this year because of citizen support for resilience efforts,” Ford said. “We need to keep doing that.”

Rife has been reaching out to legislators for help and supports the effort toward funding protection projects, she said. 

“I don’t want anybody to ever have to go through what I went through,” Rife said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.