Getting FEMA on board a first step, but can’t be the last

This past week, the Monongalia County Commission voted to declare a county-wide state of emergency in response to the July 29 floods. It’s a  critical decision, because a state of emergency must be in place for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer assistance. This is the first step needed for short-term help, but we also need  a long-term solution.

A lot of people in and around Morgantown found out the hard way the last couple months that most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover flooding. According to Policy Genius, “if your home is flooded as a result of stormwater, an overflowing body of water, or groundwater seeping or leaking into your basement, homeowners insurance won’t cover it. Water damage from a sewer backup or overflowing sump pump is also listed as an exclusion in most policies.”

Patteson Drive — which was the star of several viral videos recently — is in a known floodplain. According to FEMA’s map of flood zones, much of Patteson is in a Special Flood Hazard Area. The SFHA is an area that is predicted to flood during a 100-year flood — and as we discussed June 28, a “100-year flood” actually means there is a 1% chance each year that there will be significant flooding.

 Homeowners and business owners residing in known floodplains are usually required to buy separate flood insurance because the risk is so high. But for everyone else, a separate policy is just an extra expense — one that many people can’t afford.

The area in Westover where Katelyn Eichelberger and Diana Moore live, however, is not in a known flood zone —for now. And that’s where FEMA steps in.

Both Eichelberger and Moore experienced extensive damage to their homes and personal property — and we’re sure they are not the only ones. As MECCA 911 Director Jim Smith said last week, the next step to get FEMA’s help is reaching the $2.9 million threshold of property damage county-wide. If you experienced property damage in the most-recent flooding, please fill out the initial damage assessment form on mecca911.org by Aug. 11.

One commissioner said there will need to be further discussion about how flooding of this magnitude happened twice in six weeks and what to do to protect the county going forward.

The “how” is pretty easy to explain: Climate change and outdated water infrastructure. FEMA’s flood maps aren’t adjusted to account for climate change, which has impacted the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

According to the First Street Foundation Flood Model, which accounts for climate change, the number of West Virginia properties at substantial risk for flooding is almost 2.5 times higher than FEMA’s estimates. In Mon County, that bumps to more than three times higher. ReSource puts those numbers in perspective: 20% of homes in West Virginia (approximately 10% of homes in Mon and Preston counties) are at risk of being damaged by flooding. That means FEMA’s flood zone map — and subsequent flood insurance requirement — is missing many residences at risk.

As a Morgantown Utility Board spokesman said in June, Morgantown’s water systems work fine on a daily basis, but they are not equipped to handle the kinds of storms we’ve been seeing — and will  see more often.  What we need to do next is upgrade our water infrastructure to account for these unmarked flood zones, which may include where Eichelberger and Moore live, so the systems can handle those 100-year floods that happen once a month instead.