WV to apply for federal infrastructure resilience grants as climate change increases risk

By: - November 20, 2023 6:00 am

West Virginia is among a small number of states that have not applied for BRIC grants set aside for climate-related infrastructure projects. This car was washed into Witcher Creek during the flooding on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, in Belle, W.Va. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)

As climate change is expected to increase flood risk and other hazards for residents across West Virginia, the state is preparing to apply for federal pots of money to help mitigate wreckage and, hopefully, reduce the potential loss of life.

The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant fund was started by the Federal Emergency Management Agency about three years ago. The grants are meant to pull resources from the federal government down to localities to help invest in projects that prevent damage instead of responding to it.

“Historically, our disaster programs were meant to respond following a presidentially declared disaster. It was very [cyclical] — [FEMA] would respond after the disaster occurred with funding to restore the damage,” said Dustin Brosius, who serves as the community resilience and infrastructure grants branch chief at FEMA’s Region 3. “BRIC really is a program that focuses on trying to avoid that damage in the first place, to recognize the growing hazards associated with climate change and grow the capacity and capabilities for communities to avoid damages in the future.”

According to an analysis by E&E News last week, West Virginia is among a small number of states that have not applied for BRIC grants set aside for climate-related infrastructure projects. 

This isn’t because the state doesn’t want the money or have a use for it, Brosius said, it’s because the West Virginia Department of Emergency Management had to develop complicated mitigation plans and procedures before qualifying for the funds. 

“I want to be clear: West Virginia has gotten BRIC funding for the revision of these state mitigation plans, and those are a very important component to this program. To be eligible for BRIC, you have to have those pre-existing mitigation plans,” Brosius said. “Right now, [West Virginia] is taking the steps it needs to take to better use those funds in the future.”

Lora Lipscomb, public information officer for the West Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said in an emailed statement that the department is now working with local stakeholders to prioritize projects to apply for BRIC grants in the current funding cycle, which ends in February.

“However, it’s crucial for communities to express a desire to apply and meet stringent grant requirements. Unfortunately, many West Virginia communities are ineligible due to specific conditions for receiving grant awards,” Lipscomb said in the email. “WVEMD remains committed to promoting and educating communities about Hazard Mitigation Assistance opportunities, including BRIC.”

The move to apply for the federal money comes after the state’s hazard mitigation plan was updated this year and approved by FEMA in October, Brosius said. 

The draft plan outlines 16 hazards of concern in the state, which range from flooding and droughts to exposure to hazardous materials and utility failures, among others. In the plan, a detailed profile is provided for each potential hazard to define what it is, how and where it is more likely to occur, historic occurrences of the hazard and future potentials and vulnerabilities that could make damage — both structural and the loss of life — more severe.

Flooding is one of the most pressing climate-related hazards in West Virginia. Risk Factor, a model created by the climate nonprofit First Street Foundation to gauge the risk of certain climate-related hazards, estimates that almost 411,000 structures in the state face a 26% risk of being severely affected by flooding in the next 30 years. This risk is exacerbated by the state’s continued reliance on extractive industries and practices, which can erode natural flood plains and speed up climate-related incidents that worsen flooding, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

According to FEMA, between 1953 and 2022, there have been 35 federal emergency declarations made for flooding events in the state. In recent years, flooding has become more frequent — and expensive — even as disaster declarations are not always made.

Between 2018 and 2022, according to the mitigation plan, 21 flooding events across West Virginia cost the state more than $26 million in property damage. Only five of those floods warranted federal emergency declarations.

And, according to the state’s mitigation plan, flooding isn’t the only thing West Virginians have to worry about. Given the state’s mountainous landscape, landslides are more likely to occur as a result of increased flooding and more severe storms, which can also affect the power grids and utility reliability.

And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, extended dry seasons could mean longer droughts and more wildfires — an especially relevant point as about 80 fires have burned across more than 15,500 acres in Southern West Virginia since Oct. 1. 

Brosius said gaining a better understanding of how these events occur and what can be done to limit them is the main point of the BRIC funding.

“We are going to see because of the changing climate that there will be larger, natural recurrences of stronger storms, stronger events and more intense storms,” Brosius said. “That’s what makes the way we think about restoring and improving our infrastructure all the more important of a conversation.”

In other states, BRIC funds have been used for projects spanning from flood and fire mitigation to community improvements. In Illinois, the funds were used to construct a new wastewater treatment plant in a village after flooding damaged the former one and caused raw sewage to back up into homes — a problem that also occurs regularly in West Virginia. In Maryland, the money has helped restore erosion that increases flooding risk in communities along the Chesapeake Bay.

While it’s unclear what projects exactly West Virginia will pursue with its grant applications, Brosius said there is much to be done in the state, and FEMA representatives are in regular talks with state officials about their needs.

“We’re in contact all the time, and that is not going to change anytime soon,” Brosius said.

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Caity Coyne
Caity Coyne

Caity Coyne covers state policy and how it intersects with individuals and communities for West Virginia Watch. She's been reporting in West Virginia for 10 years, most recently covering public health and the Southern Coalfields for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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