By Brad McElhinny West Virginia MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The flood of 2016 has given new meaning to the struggle to stay in West Virginia.
For years, West Virginians whose homes were destroyed by flooding faced a fairly standard scenario: demolish the structure, accept federal dollars and move on with life somewhere else.
State officials hope flood victims will consider a new option: demolish the structure, rebuild it and stay.
“To reinvent West Virginia, it’s necessary for people to consider staying versus leaving,” said Brian Penix, state hazard mitigation officer in the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“But even if you are going to leave, consider allowing someone else to stay. Let us reconstruct a new home there. If you want to leave, sell it after you’ve done the project.”
The concern among state officials is that if most West Virginia flood victims opt to demolish and go, that will irreparably diminish their communities, which were struggling already. State officials laid out the options for flooded West Virginia residents during a series of public meetings this fall.
“The individual property owner may feel like ‘I’ve been flooded, I’ve had a couple of floods, I just want to get out of here,’” said Al Lisko, director of mitigation and recovery for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“That’s a great option for the individual, but for the community it’s a terrible option.”
State officials warn that once flood plain property is bought by a local government using local funds, it has to be open space for perpetuity. It can become a park or some sort of green space, but it can’t be a dwelling or business. So it won’t help the local tax base.
“If they actually bought out a substantial number of properties, they would cease to exist as a community because all the lands could only be used for open space,” Lisko said.
“No homes, no new buildings, no businesses.”
West Virginia already has 1,700 deed-restricted properties from previous disasters, Penix said.
“That’s a huge amount with no tax base,” he said. “It becomes a problem later on.”
Following last summer’s floods, West Virginia has 600 properties that have been requested to be considered for demolition by the contractor hired by the National Guard, Lisko said.
Already, 200 have met necessary clearances.
“How many of those want to be bought out as opposed to demolished and rebuilt, we do not know,” Lisko said.
Those who manage West Virginia’s flood relief efforts had no options in prior years. Federal Emergency Management Agency funding pointed only toward demolition and payouts, state officials said.
Following Hurricane Katrina, FEMA started experimenting with a rebuild option. Lisko said those attempts seemed to run into management issues, though. “Then we heard it was done in Virginia, and there were some problems with costs.”
But attempts to establish rebuild as an option seemed to work out in Pennsylvania, Lisko said. So leaders there came to West Virginia to provide technical assistance.
“And that encouraged us to take a look at it because we have been so successful in acquisitions that we could see the handwriting on the wall.”
West Virginia would be the first state to use the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for mitigation reconstruction outside of pilot programs, state leaders said.
To proceed, flood-struck communities like Clendenin, Richwood or Rainelle will need to spearhead applications.
Clendenin is interested in participating, said town recorder David Ross. The rebuild projects can only be completed as FEMA approves funds, so five homes in Clendenin would be up for initial consideration.
“We’re definitely in favor,” Ross said last week. “The old traditional approach would literally destroy the town’s population. The traditional FEMA policy is that no structure would ever be built on them again. That would be disastrous for Clendenin.”
Once a few rebuild projects are in the pipeline, that could encourage more applications, Lisko said.
“We understand there’s a healthy skepticism on the part of people,” Lisko said. “The hope is we can get one started and people can see it and go ‘Oh, this is a viable alternative. This is something we can do. It can work.”
Rebuilding homes will mean making sure they are complaint with flood plain ordinances and compliant with local building code, Penix said. The new homes will be designed reduce or eliminate future risk: to withstand future floods, to be wind-resistant and to be earthquake-resistant.
In some cases, the home might be elevated above what it once was.
“We’re going to make it stronger,” Penix said.
He warned, though, that the process is likely to be complicated, long and costly.
Still, Penix and Lisko hope more people demonstrate interest in that option.
“We’re trying to balance the communities and the wishes of the citizens in those communities,” Lisko said. “We know that at times they do not balance.”