For decades, numerous communities were deemed too poor for federal flood protection.

Now a new section of federal water law, and the Biden Administration push for equity could help them.

Photo by Amy Dinaldo

1 p.m., June 23, 2016.

“The town is flooding!” a worker at the Nicholas County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Richwood, West Virginia, yelled to Nancy Mullins.

Thinking of her children, Mullins, a cook at the nursing home, raced to their home a block from the Cherry River, moved them to safety, and returned to the nursing home. In the short time she was gone, the flood was already in the laps of elderly residents in wheelchairs.

As workers panicked around her, Mullins took charge. “We’ve got to get these people out of here,” she yelled at her boss. A school bus driver brought two buses and began transporting the 95 residents to Liberty Baptist Church.

“It was like slow motion, you got to move, we need teamwork, you hold, you do that. Was happening so fast, no time to react, just had to do. I never saw myself doing this in my whole life.”

Workers carried fragile elderly, with feeding tubes, IVs, bandaged limbs, out the narrow gap between the back door and retaining wall. A son of a resident grabbed Mullins and saved her from drowning as a torrent knocked her down. After water rose too high for a bus, Mullins helped carry the last 12 residents on sheets through high water to the church. Patients, some with Alzheimer’s, slept on wooden pews, and unknown number later died at facilities far away.

When she finally got home, Mullins found Cherry River overflow had filled her house up to the kitchen counter. A neighbor’s deck was lodged against the back door.

Photo by Jeromy Rose

In just a few hours, the 1000- year storm with one-tenth of 1-percent of happening dumped nearly 9 inches of rain on this tiny city at the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. Gushers roared down the South and North Forks, then smacked into the Cherry River as it rose over its banks like a tsunami. Hillside streets funneled torrents to city below. Eighty homes were destroyed, 100 were damaged. The high and middle schools damaged beyond repair. The only grocery store closed and was demolished. Streets became ravines, water and sewer pipes twisted and erupted. The nursing home has closed, taking away 136 jobs. Damages will cost the federal government alone, at least $60 million.

Early in 2021, the flood disaster is far from over. After nearly losing the schools to consolidation 30 miles away, the city of 2,000 residents will have middle and high schools built atop the elementary school, nearly a mile from athletic fields in the center of the city. Flood repairs are still ongoing. FEMA has not fully reimbursed recovery costs, so the city is nearly bankrupt.

All this could have been prevented.

The reason it wasn’t goes to the heart of the Biden Administration’s plan for equity across the federal government for minority, Native American, rural, and other underserved communities: “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach. Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.”

Interpretations over the years of an 85-year-old policy made Richwood too poor for the federal government to protect it from flooding. Three times in five decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers compared the benefits of flood protection structures to the cost of building them, and each time ruled the value of of the buildings protected was less than the cost of flood control. Such an approach to benefit-cost analysis does not consider danger to people or socioeconomics of a community.

When FEMA officials held an informational meeting shortly after the flood, Bonnie Bailey Kroll, who had volunteered to run a distribution center in a vacant Main Street store, asked, “Why we didn’t get flood gates, flood walls. I was told,” she said, “We didn’t have enough revenue to be feasible.”

“In other words, they don’t care if we wash away” said her assistant Linda Jarvis, whose nursing home job had been destroyed by the flood.

Bonnie Bailey Kroll (second from right) Photo by Penny Loeb

Richwood is just one of numerous places judged not worth protecting. After the 2008 historic flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the city applied for Corps of Engineers funding for flood protection for both the industrial east side of the Cedar River, with the Quaker Oats Plant, and the west side with lower-income and elderly residents. However, the benefits for both sides combined was less than the cost of protection. But the east side alone benefits did exceed the costs, so it received Corps funding. The state and city are funding the west side.

“There is a bias in the CBA against low-value properties and communities where the flood risk is mostly for low-value properties, said Leonard Shabman a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, “This bias is well understood and has long been recognized.”

“Many projects with strong environmental, social, and public safety benefits have been left on the table to the detriment of efforts to protect our natural environment, provide social justice for those who need our support, and offer life safety to the many people who live at risk in areas where the economic benefits alone do not justify their protection,” Gerald E. Galloway, Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering at the University of Maryland, stated in 2008 testimony on revision of guidelines for water resources implementation studies.

“Generating economic benefits in small communities in West Virginia can be a daunting task,” stated the 2004 Statewide Flood Protection Plan. “In West Virginia, as in many parts of Appalachia, there are only a handful of municipalities that contain the population density and development values that can generate sufficient flood damage benefits to justify construction of major flood protection benefits. Therefore, under current flood-protection justification methods and regulations, these communities must continue to endure repeated flood damages and loss of life.”

Neither the Corps of Engineers or USDA could provide data on the number of projects denied for failing benefit-cost analysis. However, residents and officials of flood prone communities can ask the local USDA and Corps of Engineers offices if studies were done. Richwood’s USDA file of 165 documents reveals how denials happen.

Settled in the late 1800s by trappers and fishermen, grown on lumber, paper, coal and a tannery, the tight-knit community aims to exceed expectations: the largest city, population 7,000, within 100 miles in 1927, the world’s largest clothes pin factory and largest sole leather tannery. Main Street now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Richwood native Mike Barrett played on the1968 amateur Olympic basketball team that shocked the world during the Cold War by upsetting the heavily favored Russians for the Gold Medal.

While decline in coal mining and a four-lane highway 30 miles away shrank the city in the 1980s, before the 2016 flood, Richwood had all the components of a solid town, city hall, library, post office, shopping plaza, convenience stores, auto repair shops, two lumberyards, funeral home, dentist, doctor, restaurants, gas stations. A U.S News & World Report 2014 Bronze Award plaque adorned the high school.

Richwood Residents and Alumni Showed Support for High School before it was demolished Photo Contributed

The city also exceeds at flooding: 1873, 1918, 1926, 1932, 1940, and 1954, 1967, 1979, 1985 and 2003, 2016. In 1967, Richwood leaders asked the Soil Conservation Service to study building a dam.

Prompted by water shortages during the dust bowl, and floods rushing over bare land, SCS began building upstream dams in 1948. “Watershed dams are silent sentinels because they quietly protect communities,” wrote retired USDA engineer Larry Caldwell in the 2020 USDA Watershed Programs Facts and Figures — A Reservoir of Watershed Program Information. “After a heavy rain event, they spring into action. They capture rushing flood water and hold the water back allowing it to be slowly released downstream. Slowing the water down and allowing it to be gradually released reduces damage to downstream roads, bridges, fences, cropland, and other property.”

SCS, and its successor Natural Resources Conservation Service, built 11,841 of the nation’s 91,457 dams. [find dams near you] After peaking in the mid1960s, SCS ended most construction by 1990.The 2,196 high-hazard USDA dams that protect human life and property are being inspected and repaired if necessary. None will be removed. “While the dams have been so important in the past 60 or 70 years, they’re going to be even more so for the next generation,” Caldwell wrote. “I don’t know all the science behind all the projections on climate change, but it sure seems like when you look at the last decade, we’ve experienced much more extreme weather conditions. That goes for both prolonged droughts as well as devastating floods.”

Approaches to flood control now favor removing levees and dams and letting flood waters spread out. But in many, often poorer parts of Appalachia, small towns are tucked between steep mountains, leaving no place for water to spread out. Indeed, the mountains, often timbered, mined or laced with gas well roads, send extra water to the rivers. So the original SCS method of holding waters upstream until storms end has worked well there.

In Richwood, SCS studied how to lessen flooding and increase the supply of municipal water. In 1967, 340 homes and 60 commercial properties could flood. A 70-acre lake several miles up the South Fork of the Cherry River, combined with three smaller flood retarding structures on three nearby streams, would reduce damages of the largest flood by 95 percent, and provide recreation, water, economic growth and employment. SCS would have paid $3.8 million of the total $4.8 million ($37 million today).

Richwwood’s proposal resembled 110-foot dam at 1964 New Creek Site 14 Keyser,WV Photo contributed by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Caldwell stressed that determining benefit-cost can be complex, and agency staff did try hard to find every benefit. Half a dozen mixes of benefits were developed for Richwood. Only with potential development did the dam pass 1.3–1.0. But, like many small communities today, the shared cost of $956,400 was too much for Richwood, and the project was dropped.

In 1987, local leaders asked SCS for another study. This time, flood-weary residents gathered 18 pages of petitions with nearly 900 signatures and lobbied state and federal legislators. Mayor Robert Johnson stressed the need for additional water supply for industrial development, more houses, and a large elderly home. By then SCS had built 167 of the eventual 170 flood control dams in the state. Richwood folks wanted the 168th.

The dam appeared destined for failure from the start, SCS officials told Richwood’s U.S. Senators and Congressman: “According to current regulations we could not count many of the benefits today that are displayed in the [1967] report. Also, more stringent design criteria has caused prices to increase dramatically. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a project could be justified under any of our flood prevention programs today.”

The dam failed benefit-cost, 0.49 to 1.0. SCS concluded: “The remaining flood problem in Richwood, although serious during major floods, is insufficient to justify significant project action.”

Then came back to back floods in November 2003, damaging 370 residences and 25 businesses. This time SCS was already overwhelmed with project requests after the 2001–2002 floods swept through the southern part of the state, killing 10 people and impacting at least 20,000 residents.

Led by retired Army Colonel Ralph Kelly and John Dietz, residents and city officials turned to the Corps of Engineers. The Corps has built 24 flood risk management dams and 19 protective levees and floodwall systems in the state. During the 2016 flood, Corps dams were credited with saving Charleston from massive dammage. Larger than SCS dams, Corps dams often created spacious recreation areas.

A binder of records, 6 inches thick, describes Richwood’s five-year effort: more than 3,600 people signed petitions, and more than 40 organizations endorsed the project. This time, supporters stressed the hydropower potential of the dam, as well, though the Corps did not study it. Every local, state, and Congressional representative wrote support letters. Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall obtained funds for the study.

The Corps determined South Fork dam and recreation lake would cost $347 million. Noting that 725 residential structures in the Cherry River basin could be damaged in a 100-year-flood, the Corps outlined nine pick-and-choose alternative measures: ringwall along the Cherry River, $31 million; ringwall downstream of the city, $28 million; small levee for elementary school, $105,000; ringwall for the nursing home, $2 million; hospital veneer wall, $1.1 million; ringwall for National Guard Armory, $3.1 million; ringwall for high and middle school and shopping plaza, $10 million; library veneer wall, $609,000; municipal building veneer wall, $742,000.

All failed benefit-cost analysis. Only a flood warning system was calculated as more beneficial than the cost. But it was never installed. The final 2008 study acknowledged “serious flood risk managements exist in the Cherry River basin, especially for the city of Richwood, with potential average annual flood damages of $1.7 million.”

Despite that defeat, in early 2009, the South Fork Lake committee tried to fund yet another study recommended by the Corps: a comprehensive watershed management plan. It did obtain $150,000 matching money from the state Conservation Committee, but could not fund the Corps $2 million.

Just as the Biden Administration in early 2021, the new Obama administration funded billions of dollars in stimulus money in 2009 to help states recover from the Great Recession. On March 18, 2009, the South Fork Lake committee asked then Governor Joe Manchin for $25 million for the lake, as well as $8 million to fix the sewer system. But the request was too late. Manchin had already submitted his project list December 23, 2008.

Ralph Kelly, the driving force behind the project, had served as a Budget Liaison Officer at the Pentagon and worked on Capital Hill pushing the Army’s financial needs through Congress. He also took members of the South Fork Lake Committee to Washington as a delegation to get the funding for the study, and was part of Joe Manchin’s Election Committee for Governor and Senator.

When Kelly resigned from the committee in December 2009, he left a blueprint of the most doable plan that is in the South Fork Lake Committee records: The timber company would obtain the permit to build the hydro electric lake, or sell to private investors with the guarantee of a Corps permit. “By having private funds involved, it will be easier to persuade WV Congressional Delegation to support funding for a “private economic enterprise” to restore City of Richwood.”

After the 2016 flood, the Corps was supposed to study the flooding again. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) had secured a provision in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2016, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to study the hydrology of the Kanawha River Basin, including the Elk River Basin, the Greenbrier River Basin and the Cherry River Basin to reduce flood risks, enhance the ecosystem, support navigation, water supply, recreation and other water resource related purposes. The study was never funded, a Corps spokesman said.

“Of course building South Fork Lake will be expensive, but what will the cost of not building the lake be?” wrote Bob Henry Baber in 2003. A PhD college professor, Baber was Mayor during the study, and for a year after the 2016 flood.

Benefit-cost analysis was born out of one sentence in the declaration of policy of the Flood Control Act of 1936, the first law coordinating flood control measures across the nation: “The Federal Government should improve or participate in the improvement of navigable waters or their tributaries, including watersheds thereof, for flood-control purposes if the benefits to whomsoever they may accrue are in the excess of the estimated costs, and if the lives and social security of people are otherwise adversely affected.” The 1954 Act establishing the USDA watershed program also required “a determination as to whether benefits exceed costs.”

While intended to prevent the large expenditures of the first decades of the 20th Century for levees and other flood control with minimal result, benefit-cost immediately posed “the old problems of defining social criteria by which benefits and costs may be evaluated, and of discussing future benefits,” wrote Gilbert F. White in “The Limit of Economic Justification for Flood Protection [1936].” White, then 24, would become known as Father of Floodplain Management.

For several decades, Galloway has told Congress and federal officials that benefit-cost should include “distributive justice, social connectedness, equality, and health and safety considerations.”

Federal flood control law continually evolves, but the most radical change, Galloway said, came when the Reagan administration essentially made national economic development the sole objective, eliminating consideration of environmental benefits, public safety and other social impacts.

“It is a terrible situation in my view,” he said “But there is hope on the horizon.”

That comes in Section 110 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 which requires that future analysis by the Corps: “fully identifies and analyzes national economic development benefits, regional economic development benefits, environmental quality benefits, and other societal effects.”

While this section is the first time the Corps is mandated to consider the broader benefits, consideration of altering benefit-cost began when the 2007 Water Resources Development Act directed the Principles Guidelines and Requirements for Federal Investment in Water Resources be updated “to address advancements in economic and analytic techniques; public safety; low-income communities; nonstructural solutions; and integrated, adaptive, and watershed approaches.”

The update took six years and resulted in the Obama Administration making the new approach government wide. However, However, Congress, through legislative language, prevented the Corps from implementing the new policies. Now Galloway is keeping a close eye on Section 110 guidelines. “How it [section 110] will be implemented will be an interesting question,” he said.

“This could be game changer for the Corps,” said Jonathan Aya-ay — Chief Planning Branch at the Corps Huntington, WV, District. A team at Corps headquarters has been drawing up guidelines, and is now figuring out how to incorporate the equity standards of the Biden Administration, he said.

Richwood November 2020 Photo by Penny Loeb

Meanwhile, 47 percent [981] of Richwood’s buildings could flood, according to the cutting-edge 2020 First Street Foundation Study.

One-third of the 2,127 residents are below poverty level; median household income is $28,641, the Census reported in 2019.

In 2017, Congress granted NRCS funding for 48 projects in 20 states. Richwood is one of six in West Virginia. But while four places have flooding solutions projects, Richwood only gets stream habitat and watershed restoration.

When Baber was elected Mayor two days before the 2016 flood, his number one goal was building South Fork Lake. Instead all he could do was help the city survive. But now he believes is the best chance for building South Fork Dam and Lake. Senator Manchin is now Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, knows Richwood well.

With land donated by Weyerhauser timber company, construction help from the coal mine above Richwood, state funding and a variety of nonprofits, the lake could cost as little as $20 million, Baber said. The lake, and possible whitewater rafting could support Richwood’s current focus on tourism.

South Fork of Cherry River Photo by Penny Loeb

Richwood is eligible for a share of the $106 million hazard mitigation funding for the 2016 flood awarded to West Virginia last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Eighty-one percent will be spent on infrastructure. Since HUD complied with the Obama directive, HUD benefit-cost must consider economic, environmental, social and resilience factors.

Only about a dozen dams have been built in West Virginia since 2000. But two are relevant to Richwood. Dawson Lake, in adjacent Greenbrier County, attracted a vacation home development. Elkwater Fork, a NRCS dam providing essential drinking water for towns in the Upper Tygart Valley, cost approximately $42 million using more economical roller-compacted cement.

“Richwood is known as, the town that wouldn’t die,” Baber said. “The creation of the dam would not only ensure its survival but would guarantee it would thrive. With hydropower as one of the dam’s components the project would fit perfectly into the matrix of infrastructure development, the Green New Deal, and economic equity for underserved communities.”

A December 2020 study by Johns Hopkins University and the American Flood Coalition found every $1 million invested in flood infrastructure projects could create up to 4,000 new construction and retail jobs.

The Richwood community still wants the dam, current Mayor Gary Johnson, a former circuit court judge, said. “Absolutely. With the floodway and floodplain restrictions it is impossible to find land that is not under some restriction for housing or development. We have a 100 bed nursing home that is not being used at this time.”

“The three big things the project has are: Manchin in a key congressional position, Governor Jim Justice with money and connections, and a change in the way the project can be analyzed,” Ralph Kelly wrote in a March 28 email. “Wealthy people like to find new ‘pet projects,’ and this one needs a benefactor. But they will need to move quickly to obtain private investors like Weyerhaeuser to get the key “private support and funding” they need.”

Manchin did not respond to requests for comment.

Cherry River in Richwood, March 1, 2021, down about 3 feet from peak 10.59.feet Photo by Bob Henry Baber

On February 28, a flood again threatened Richwood. Between February 26 and the morning of March 1, 2021, 3.5 inches of rain poured down, and melted heavy snow on surrounding mountains. The Cherry River rose 7 feet in a day and a half. Near midnight February 28, it peaked at 10.59 feet, 1.7 feet below the record 12.3 feet, and damaged the parking lot for the planned K-12 school. Now the lot will have 20 fewer parking spaces.

Terrified once again, Nancy Mullins, through mud and rain, moved belongings and a zoo of animals to safety. “All the trauma from the last flood comes rushing back and my girls are once again panicked,” she wrote on Facebook.

Slide Show of Richwood Photos

Author, investigative reporter (at Newsday and U.S. News & World Report). Finalist Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award.

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