Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter
By Alexa Beyer, Mountain State Spotlight
When four and a half feet of water engulfed the town of Fleming-Neon, Ky., in July, Fire Chief Carter Bevins found himself in an uncharted position.
“We were helpless,” he said.
The volunteer fire station, which is on a small road just across Wright Fork Creek, was surrounded by a chest-high wall of water. The phone rang again and again, with residents pleading for help. But Bevins and his team couldn’t open the door. All the firefighters could suggest to the panicked residents was that they get as high as possible.
“We try to take any situation and neutralize it, make it better. How are you going to do this when you can’t even get out of your own building? Bevins asked.
Fleming-Neon wasn’t the only community in this situation: with large parts of eastern Kentucky still reeling from July floods that destroyed thousands of buildings, displaced hundreds and killed 39 people. , elected officials focus on disaster response. The same is true across the border in West Virginia, where catastrophic flooding has become a regular occurrence for residents of communities from McDowell to Kanawha.
But for years, officials ignored their own comprehensive plans for how to prevent this kind of disaster from happening in the first place. West Virginia has had a comprehensive flood mitigation plan in place since 2004, though authorities have taken little concrete action to implement it. And in Kentucky, sweeping regional plans outline how communities could reduce the potential for flood damage.
In these cases, planning and action do not go hand in hand.
Climate change shapes flooding, evacuations, response
The topography and residential patterns of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia naturally lend themselves to flooding. In these mountainous regions, where most people live on narrow strips of land next to streams and surrounded by mountains, water rushes down the mountains and overflows small tributaries.
But the last decades of logging and coal mining have aggravated these floods, depriving the surfaces of their ability to absorb water. And as the climate changes, major floods will occur even more frequently.
Climate change makes the region more prone to sudden and intense storms that drop lots of rain, as an increase in atmospheric temperature increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, making precipitation, and in particular flooding, more likely.
Kevin Law, a Marshall University professor and state climatologist, said he’s seen an increase in precipitation in West Virginia and much of the region since he began his duties in 2008.
Part of a state climatologist’s job is to use this data to predict future climate trends.
But Law says global warming also makes floods like the recent one in eastern Kentucky harder to identify in advance. Due to temperature changes in the jet stream, which steers storms, there have been more “drive-in” events in the region: where very narrow but intense storms line up like cars in a lane rail and follow one another.
These storms are so narrow that it’s hard for climatologists to accurately predict where they’re going to occur until they actually happen, like tornadoes, Law says.
“You can sort of get an idea if this is going to happen in Kentucky, but precisely where you just don’t know until you start seeing this line on radar and then you can issue the warning , but often then it may be too late,” he said.
The increased frequency and severity of storms means Kentuckians and West Virginians regularly face more potential damage. This makes infrastructure projects like dams and flood walls, as well as levees, building upgrades and emergency notification systems all the more important.
In West Virginia, after 20 years, the plan is still in progress
West Virginia is very familiar with the type of planning needed to protect residents from the worst impacts of flooding. In 2004, a 20-agency task force produced a 365-page statewide flood protection plan, the result of generous federal and state contributions and four years of work. The plan was loaded with practical suggestions on floodplain and sewage management, ordinance enforcement, better flood warning systems, improved building codes, and a tougher approach to resource extraction. Yet it was never implemented by any of the state agencies that would have had jurisdiction over parts of the plan.
Here, the effects of these more frequent floods were most recently evident in 2016, when a catastrophic flood damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and killed 23 people.
Weeks later, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that the state had taken no action on the previous plan. The following year, the state legislature created a Joint Flood Committee and Office of State Resilience, designed to orchestrate statewide disaster responses and create a new plan. flood mitigation that builds on the work done on the first one.
Five years after the state committee and office was created to update the state’s mitigation plans, nothing is in place.
“There’s not a lot of instant gratification associated with flood risk mitigation, unfortunately,” said Matthew Sanderson, senior director of flood-prepared communities for the Pew Research Fund. Pew is currently working with the Resilience Office to develop a new plan. He said more frequent and severe flooding in states like West Virginia means no one is prepared to deal with flooding properly.