Steps being taken to be better prepared for major flooding
CHARLESTON, WV (WCHS/WVAH) —
As the one year anniversary of the flood is just one day away, many are asking what we've learned from the catastrophic event.
The torrential rain that inundated parts of West Virginia was, by all means, an exceptional event with devastating consequences. Many are still recovering but there are things being done to protect residents if it were to ever happen again.
"The first day I drove into Clendenin, which was as soon as the water receded, I can't even, I can't even start to tell you how that felt. I can't even begin to tell you how that felt," Susan Jack says. She still struggles talking about June 23, 2016. "That was a night that just seemed like it went on, and on, and on. It would take me all day to tell you that story."
Jack was in the process of moving out of state with her 16-year-old daughter. Everything they owned was being held in storage in Blue Creek while they were staying in an apartment. Everything was destroyed.
"It was just a matter of me finishing up my last week of work, and her finishing up summer school and we were gone. And, the flood hit," she recalls.
The flood that changed countless lives, took 23, and forever altered the course of towns like Clendenin.
"I could not ever imagine this town being able to come back from that," she says.
Jack and her daughter decided to stay. Jack felt a deep connection to her hometown and wanted to do all she could to help those in need. Despite people calling her crazy, she even bought a home that had been flooded in the heart of Clendenin.
"If you can imagine, there was 3 1/2 feet of water in the upstairs of those units, they were completely gone," she says pointing to a group of apartments that came with the home.
She volunteered for ten months and struggled financially with no income coming in. "This is my hometown and I want to save my hometown," Jack said in July 2016 interview with Eyewitness News.
Today, she serves as the executive director of the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee. During the interview, it was easy to tell how busy she is. Crews were stopping by to say hello before they ventured out to continue their work with victims, her phone was constantly ringing, and she was clearly the "go to" person for flood relief.
"You guys are a sight for sore eyes," she says as she hugs a group that came down from Ohio.
Despite the constant work, the memories from a year ago, are never far from her mind.
"Does it every cross your mind or concern you that it could happen again?" Eyewitness News reporter Leslie Rubin asked her. "It does, it does. You know, you think about that but then you think, it's never ever happened like that before," she says.
"There is a possibility, it's a rare event, but it can happen again," explains John Sikora, a Service Hydrologist with the National Weather Service. He explains that a thousand year flood doesn't mean it happens once in a thousand years, but that there's a 1 in 1,000 chance of it happening on any given day.
"If the conditions are right, it can happen at any time," he says. "Moisture coming in from the Pacific. Moisture coming in from the Gulf and moisture coming in from the Atlantic. All meeting over West Virginia," he says, referencing the conditions that made for the rare event on June 23, 2016.
The Elk River at Queen Shoals hadn't risen as high since 1888 when it hit 32 feet. During the 2016 event, it hit 32.89 feet. Flood stage is 19 feet.
In July, a new law goes into effect across that state that will establish the State Flood Protection Planning Council and Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. It stems from a decade old flood protection plan that was never fully implemented. A plan that sat on the shelf for ten years that was meant to help West Virginia prepare for and prevent flooding.
"That's why we felt this was incredibly important to do this now," explains House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
House Bill 2935 will bring together different groups that will report to the legislature every year about what can be done to better protect the state from flooding. "To tell us, what can we do as a legislature to make their job easier? Are there road blocks that they encountered throughout this process that need to be removed? Are there things that we as a legislature can do in terms of new laws or new legislation that can make their jobs easier," Armstead says.
"I wish we could prevent floods entirely, of course, all of us do. But to the extent that we can't actually prevent them, we need to make sure that we give our first responders, our national guard, our volunteers, every tool that we can give them to make sure they are even more successful in helping the people of our state," Armstead says.
In Kanawha County, work continues to clear streams to help prevent future damage.
"We've taken thousands of tons of debris out of the streams. I've had crews working up there since the flood cleaning up flood debris from the Elk River. We still have a long ways to go. We still have a tremendous amount of debris in the steams, but we're working towards getting that cleaned up," Kanawha County Flood Plain Manager Chuck Grishaber says. "Refrain from throwing your yard waste and debris in the streams. A lot of people throw household trash and tree limbs in the stream and that goes down and gets caught in the culvert and that causes the water to back up. That's something we could all do to help prevent floods."
Houses are now being rebuilt two feet above the base flood elevation. If it were to happen again, many homes would be spared. "We are building back at a higher standard, trying to create a more resilient community that can withstand a disaster of this magnitude," Grishaber says.
"The area will be better off simply because homes that were completely destroyed and are being rebuilt are being elevated now," Jack reiterates.
But she knows the work is not done.
"We still have people waiting," she says. "You're still finding pieces of other people's lives, under your bushes, everywhere."
Jack still looks ahead to more progress and hope.
"Until you know the root cause of why it happened like that here, you can make all the plans you want to but I think you have to get to the bottom of what really happened here. Why did it happen like that? And what can we do better next time," Jack says.
FEMA case workers remain on the ground in counties declared federal disaster areas after the flood. During the past year, 4,950 West Virginia flood victims have received $42 million in individual and household assistance.