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How West Virginia Homeowners Can Protect Their Flood-Prone Homes

By Tanya Svoboda
October 2020

Four years after southern West Virginia’s catastrophic “1,000 Year Flood”, recovery efforts are still underway. Communities are struggling to rebuild as they battle against the ongoing flooding. In February, and again in June of this year, homeowners in the southern region of West Virginia were tormented by overflowing creeks and heavy rain.

Despite the devastation 2016’s flooding brought to the area, not much has been done to improve the area’s infrastructure, leaving homeowners with a sense of hopelessness. Chris Frazier, a homeowner in Yukon, McDowell County who is considering moving out of the area, stated in the article Floods Hit Sothern West Virginia as the Region Still Recovers From Past Damage, “Every year’s the same thing. The deeper the water gets, the more flooded we get. And it’s hard to get anyone to do anything really.”

While several relief efforts were made available to the state and its homeowners, progress has been fraught with corruption and little has been done in the way of flood prevention. These hiccups have reinforced the need for many West Virginian homeowners, living in or around flood plains, to take protecting their property into their own hands.

Some Homeowners Are Still Waiting for Relief from Federal Funds

Federal relief funds were made available to help areas of West Virginia affected by 2016’s historic flooding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This funding “is available to the state and eligible local governments and certain nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslide” in designated counties. After the 2016 flood, FEMA funds were used in the following ways:

  • FEMA public assistance grants
  • Low-Interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration
  • Claims paid by the National Flood Insurance Program

Disaster assistance for individuals includes grants to secure temporary housing, make essential home repairs, and to replace personal property. These grants do not have to be repaid but progress has been slow.

Marcus Scott, a homeowner in Follansbee, West Virginia was slated to receive help but, 4 years after the flood, he’s still waiting. “FEMA comes – tells me they are going to buy the house, tear it down – so I thought, okay,” Scott told WTOV 9. “I waited, waited – two years later I got ahold of you guys, did another interview – 2 years from there, here we are – I’m still waiting.”  When homes lie in floodplains, FEMA will buy the home from the homeowner and tear it down. The homeowner can use those funds to buy a new home, presumably outside of a floodplain.

RISE West Virginia aids low-income West Virginians seeking assistance to repair or reconstruct their homes as a result of the 2016 floods. But the organization has come under scrutiny for how they handled $150 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief in 2018. This controversy resulted in a priority shift for funding.

Improvements from Hazard Mitigation Grants Stalled Due to Mismanagement

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development addressed West Virginia’s infrastructure needs with their first round of funding through the Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation program. The state was awarded $149 million through this program but “the program was paused due to illegal contact issues with the vendor managing the grant program as well as issues with construction contracts entered into before HUD approval.”

State Resiliency Office Putters Out

In response to the 2016 floods, House Bill 2935 was passed creating a new state office: the State Resiliency Office. This office was tasked with creating flood protection programs, updating the state’s flood plans bi-annually, and recommending legislation to reduce flooding. But, four years later, the office has only one employee.

Democratic Senator Glenn Jeffries notes the lack of progress, “The specific constitutional charge of the flood committee is flood prevention. I mean, it uses that terminology several times,” he added. “But, you know, from a very general 30,000-foot view, the committee has done no work on flood prevention so far.”

Homeowners Can Mitigate Risks on Their Own

The road to flood recovery and prevention in West Virginia, from a state and federal level, has been long. Homeowners who chose to continue to live in flood-prone areas can take some preventative measures of their own to protect themselves and their homes from flooding.

  • Get flood insurance: Flood insurance is not included in standard homeowner’s insurance policies. West Virginia’s Offices of the Insurance Commissioner notes, “Flood damage can happen to anyone, and it is important for West Virginians to realize that damage may occur to properties that are located in a flood zone and those that are not.”
  • Elevate your utilities: Placing your heating and cooling systems, water heaters, electrical panels, and other utilities in an elevated area, makes them less likely to be damaged in the event of a flood.
  • Install flood openings: If you live in a high-risk flood area, you can consider adding flood openings to your basement or other fully enclosed areas below the lowest elevated floor. Flood openings are now required in all new construction in high-risk areas.
  • Fill in your basement: The National Flood Insurance Program defines a basement as “any area of the building having its floor below Base Flood Elevation (BFE) on all sides are considered basements as well.” Filling in your existing basement will help reduce the risk of property damage during a flood and can save you money on flood insurance.
  • Elevate your home: Retroactively elevating your home can be costly but is effective in protecting your home against flood damage.
  • Relocate your home: The most effective way to reduce your flood risk is to relocate above the BFE. This is also the most expensive option. You may qualify for relocation through FEMA, but these initiatives are typically decided community-wide, not through individual homeowner applications.
  • Install Floodwalls: Floodwalls installed around your home can be used to protect the entire structure.

Flooding, and the damages that accompany it, has been a part of life in southern West Virginia for a long time, and it’s a risk that isn’t going away. The slow response for assistance from the federal and state governments shows homeowners who are determined to live in floodplains, that the best way to protect their homes is through personal safeguards and improvements.


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