Federal funding for natural disasters fails Ky. counties that need it most Thursday, Oct 27 2022 

David Watson and Joyce Johnson stand in front of the trailer where Johnson's niece lived. In July, flood waters picked up the trailer and slammed it against a utility pole.

Jared Bennett

Clay County Emergency Management Director David Watson stands with Joyce Johnson in front of a trailer on Johnson’s property that was damaged by the July floods. Watson said he has gotten to know most of the people in the community of Oneida, Kentucky through his work in disaster recovery.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations.

Clay County Emergency Management Director David Watson sees signs of recovery all over Oneida, Kentucky, where flood waters tumbled down the mountains and ripped through town in late July.

By mid-September, when a reporter joined Watson for a ride-along, debris had been cleared from driveways, new mailboxes stood in front yards and construction crews were fixing crucial roads that the floods previously made impassable.

Watson’s job is to coordinate rebuilding efforts for the eastern Kentucky county. But he said floods are becoming more common and more dangerous here, and Watson worries recovery won’t be enough.

“Every time we have these flash flood warnings, we’re sitting and holding our breath, just praying that it dissipates before it hits little Oneida,” he said.

Watson isn’t just responsible for recovery alone. He’s also the person tasked with making Clay County safer and more resilient in the face of future floods through a process known as hazard mitigation planning.

Watson knows this preparation is important. But repairing what’s been damaged, helping people who lost everything get back on their feet and getting Clay County back to something resembling normal is demanding in itself.

Watson said the job has been like drinking through a firehose. 

“At the end of the day, counties focus on getting their roads and bridges built back to pre-disaster conditions,” Watson said. “Then when you look at hazard mitigation, sometimes you think that’s the least thing from my mind right now. As a county, it probably should be one of our top five priorities.” 

The idea is to reduce the harm that future extreme weather events cause people and property with long-term solutions like fortifying bridges to withstand repeated flooding, building storm life-saving shelters and helping people relocate from flood-prone properties stuck in a cycle of disasters. 

But preparing for the next calamity while still recovering from historically devastating weather is a daunting task for county emergency planners across Kentucky. Especially planners like Watson who could use a lot more support coordinating complicated projects and securing federal funding to pay for mitigation

Few counties can afford to implement robust mitigation plans without federal support, and they face barriers that make it hard for some of the state’s most disaster-prone communities to get the help they need. 

Most of the hazard mitigation money set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Association doesn’t reach counties until well after a disaster. Some counties can’t afford to put up their portion of the funds (FEMA grants will cover as much as 90% of the costs, states and local governments provide the rest). 

Any county in the state can apply for hazard mitigation funds that become available after a disaster, even if they weren’t directly impacted. As a result, some communities already reeling from recent disasters struggle to complete a complicated and time-consuming application process that can pit them against wealthier communities also vying for the grants. 

A Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of federal hazard mitigation spending shows just how unevenly the money has been distributed as a result, reflecting a process based more on competition than on need.  Communities directly impacted by Kentucky’s recent disasters received comparatively fewer federal hazard mitigation dollars – averaging $24 per capita in hazard mitigation assistance funding since 1988 compared to an average of $36 per capita for Kentucky counties spared from the storms. 

KyCIR conducted the analysis using data from a recent project from Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity that examined the complicated bureaucracies preventing many communities directly impacted by climate change from winning federal mitigation grants. The project also highlighted how the system is struggling to keep up with climate change’s rising stakes. 

Kentucky – which saw more flood related disaster declarations than any state from 2000 to 2022 –  is a prime example of this disconnect.

Of the 29 counties eligible for FEMA aid after the tornadoes and floods, four counties have never received any hazard mitigation funds. Of those four counties, which have some of the highest poverty rates in the state, only Clay County employs a full time planner working on emergency management.

University of Iowa professor Eric Tate studies the connection between poverty and weather disasters. He said the competitive grant process FEMA uses to distribute hazard mitigation funds exacerbates the nation’s already unequal response to climate change.

Wealthier, whiter and less rural communities are often better equipped to handle the administrative burden it takes to secure FEMA hazard mitigation grants, Tate said. At the same time, officials in communities with predominantly rural or minority populations whose constituents are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas often fail to even apply.

In that way, few disasters can truly be called “natural,” Tate said. “They are disasters, but because of the way we organize society, the fact that we have such inequality and discrimination… that is what’s leading to all of these problems.”


Joyce Johnson said she has lived in a small valley near Oneida since she was seven.

Seven weeks after the July 28 flood, the only items inside Johnson’s home were a few broken appliances and a muddy Bible resting on a dented clothes dryer. The walls had been stripped down to the studs, leaving a four-foot gap to the floor.

A muddy bible on a dented clothes dryer.

Jared Bennett

A muddy bible on a dented clothes dryer.

Johnson pointed to a hole in her bedroom where the flood slammed debris through the side of the house. She said she was thinking about leaving.

“We've worked our hearts out,” Johnson said. “But if it happens again, I’m leaving. I can’t handle this. This is awful to see your home destroyed and no way to put it back.”

Johnson said she was raised in a house higher up the valley, where her parents still live. In her 50 years living in the area, she remembers the creek rising plenty of times, but said flooding has become a more serious problem in recent years.

In March 2021, a flood damaged the floors and insulation in the mobile home down by the creek where Johnson’s niece lived. Her niece had only recently moved back into the trailer when the creek flooded again this July. That flood carried the trailer about 30 feet and slammed it against a utility pole as the family watched from a porch nearby.

Johnson’s niece is now renting a home in town while Watson, the county emergency director, raises the money to repair the mobile home and move it up the valley and out of the flood zone.

Counties can use hazard mitigation funds to relocate people out of flood paths, but the process is often too slow and cumbersome to be an effective option. Instead, Watson plans to use donations from community groups to move the trailer before winter arrives. He visited Johnson in September to scout the new site.

“Hazard mitigation money could fund this,” Watson said. “But she's got to get her family back in the house. She can't wait a year and a half ‘til hazard mitigation finally kicks in, and they say, ‘Hey, here's some money for you guys.’”

Joyce Johnson stands in front of her home seven weeks after floods hit the valley in Clay County, Kentucky.

Jared Bennett

Joyce Johnson stands in front of her home seven weeks after floods hit the valley in Clay County, Kentucky.

Watson said he’s been learning more about the hazard mitigation process since the July floods.

Federal and state emergency management officials announced a new round of hazard mitigation funding tied to the disaster on Sept. 7. Watson said four families in Clay County have expressed interest in using hazard mitigation funds to purchase properties in flood zones so they can relocate, and Watson is gathering the materials needed to package their application.

Watson works for Clay County, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, in addition to a full time job as the engineering director at the local hospital. He’s been in the position for 13 years but said he hadn’t applied for a hazard mitigation grant before because the county had other priorities for their limited resources, and he doesn’t have the staff.

“It really would take one staff member to do nothing but hazard mitigation planning, applications, follow through, and the whole nine yards,” said Watson.

Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson Angie Van Berkel said in an email that the agency works with Kentucky Area Development Districts, regional focused planning and development agencies, to provide technical resources for communities that want to apply for grants. A representative from the Cumberland Area Development District, which represents Clay County, did not respond to requests for comment.

‘A bit of a mystery’

FEMA gained the authority to provide funding for disaster preparation in 1988. Kentucky is one of 15 states with an enhanced hazard mitigation program, allowing for more federal money for hazard mitigation after every disaster.

Counties that want funding must submit grant applications to the Kentucky Mitigation Council, which is part of the state’s emergency management division. The council is composed of representatives from local government and state officials including Kentucky Hazard Mitigation Officer Geni Jo Brawner, floodplain coordinator Alex VanPelt and Division of Water Director Carey Johnson, with support from the University of Kentucky’s Hazard Mitigation Grants Program Office. Counties submit their proposals, and the council decides what to pass along to FEMA for approval.

Drew Chandler, emergency management director for Woodford County, said most local emergency management officials aren’t totally aware of the criteria the council uses to review requests.

“It’s a bit of a mystery,” said Chandler, also the outgoing president of the Kentucky Emergency Management Association, a nonprofit organization for emergency management professionals in the state. His county has received $2.3 million in hazard mitigation funds since 1988 to take on projects such as distributing emergency radios to people living in the floodplain and elevating a historic log cabin near Woodford Reserve distillery.

“I would like to think that the priority does, in fact, go to the counties that were impacted by the disaster,” Chandler said. “But I wouldn’t want to do that job because of the complexities and having to make decisions about which project is more worthy than another.”

Jessica Elbouab, a spokesperson for Kentucky Emergency Management, the state agency in charge of coordinating disaster response, said in an email that the council prioritizes communities that were directly impacted by the floods.

The agency provided KyCIR a list of projects approved by the council after the December tornadoes. The list showed 78% of the $134 million in federal hazard mitigation funding went towards projects in counties eligible for individual or public assistance relief. Another 21% went towards counties that were not directly impacted by the storm, with the rest going towards statewide projects. Kentucky received another $3.5 in federal funds to support regional or statewide planning projects.

The counties that suffer the most disasters aren’t necessarily the ones that get the most FEMA funding for disaster preparation.

In eastern Kentucky, Letcher and Owsley Counties saw five and seven natural disaster declarations, respectively, between 1988 and 2020. FEMA data shows neither received hazard mitigation money during that period. Fayette County, the state’s second most populous county, was named in one declaration but got $16 million over that same span.

Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson Van Berkel said in an email that Letcher and Owsley County have never applied for hazard mitigation funding and that Fayette County was the site of a $12 hazard mitigation project awarded after flash floods killed two people in 2006. Van Berkel also said that the threshold for a disaster declaration is higher in more densely populated counties.

“This doesn’t negate the need for mitigation,” Van Berkel said. “If impacted counties are not applying, rather than forgoing the FEMA funding, it is important to submit as many project proposals as possible to ensure all floods are utilized.”

Elbouab said the council typically looks for projects that will prevent future disaster damage, have passed a cost-benefit analysis and avoid harming the environment.

The council also makes funding decisions based on the state's hazard mitigation plan, which explains the disasters that threaten Kentucky. The 2018 document established broad goals, such as educating people about mitigation strategies and doing a better job coordinating and prioritizing mitigation.

These plans will become more important as climate change brings stronger storms and heavier rainfall to Kentucky and other parts of the U.S. 

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell called climate change the country’s biggest crisis in an August 2021 press release announcing a $3.5 billion commitment to hazard mitigation efforts across the country. FEMA allocated Kentucky nearly $22.8 million of the money to fund projects that lessen risks posed by natural disasters. But state and federal officials have not yet answered questions about how the money will be spent.

Emergency planners make a big difference

There are 45 counties in Kentucky with part-time emergency management directors, according to a list provided by Kentucky Emergency Management. Counties with full-time emergency planners tend to have more success securing federal hazard mitigation dollars.

The five counties that have received the most grant assistance all have someone working full-time in that role.

For the last 26 years, Ronnie Pearson has served as the full-time emergency management coordinator in Warren County, which has received $2.8 million in hazard mitigation grants since 1988. Pearson has used mitigation grants to build six storm shelters around the county, among other projects, with help from a deputy director and a full-time grant writer he shares with the rest of the county government.

Pearson said the structures provided shelter for 200 to 300 people when tornadoes hit the county last December. Eighty people died in that outbreak, 17 of them in Warren County.

Emergency planners in at least 12 counties have used hazard mitigation funds to build at least 67 storm shelters in Kentucky, most of them near the state’s largest cities and in counties with full-time emergency management directors.

Graves County has received $187,000 in hazard mitigation funds since 1988. But there were no storm shelters in Graves County last December when the tornadoes killed 24 people there. Emergency Management Director Tracey Warner has since secured hazard mitigation money from FEMA to build six shelters.

Warner has served as Graves County’s first full-time director for the past three years. The Kentucky Emergency Management Association named Warner their “manager of the year” for her service to the county in the aftermath of the tornadoes.

She is now preparing applications for funding tied to the flooding in eastern Kentucky to take on other necessary improvements, such as building a more resilient emergency operations center.

“Whether I get it or not, it's fine,” she said. “You just keep asking.”

Not every county has a full-time emergency manager like Warner or Pearson.

Nine of the 29 counties most impacted by recent disasters had part-time emergency management directors, according to data from the state, according to data from the state and KyCIR’s reporting. At least four of the counties whose emergency management directors are listed as full-time share other responsibilities such as coordinated 911 services or acting as the counties floodplain coordinator.

Letcher County emergency management director Paul Miles works part-time. He retired in 2017 after a 30-year career in law enforcement and accepted the part-time emergency management role less than a year later.

When the flood hit in late July, Miles remembers coordinating first responders helping the rescue effort in his county using an emergency radio as he fled the flood waters in his truck. His office and two backup emergency operation centers had flooded. All the county’s emergency response vehicles were swept into the North Fork Kentucky River.

Letcher County Emergency Management Director Paul Miles stands in front of first responder vehicles that were damaged in the July floods.

Letcher County Emergency Management Director Paul Miles stands in front of first responder vehicles that were damaged in the July floods. Miles' office and two backup emergency operations centers were flooded during the storm.

For Miles, figuring out long-term solutions will have to wait.

In mid-September, the county’s search and rescue truck was still tangled in a sycamore tree.

“We still have roads that aren’t open. We have people that have their driveways washed out that are impassable,” Miles said. “We have not cleared this hurdle yet.”

Letcher County has never received any hazard mitigation money, and Miles has never applied for a grant. Miles said the county had had problems with flooding before, but not to this extreme. So, leaders focused on other priorities, like coordinating a volunteer search and rescue team.

FEMA will reimburse the county for flood repairs after a separate complicated approval process, and any hazard mitigation projects will require the county to pay for a portion of the costs. Many counties in Kentucky struggle to keep up with their mitigation plans already. Miles said that even with COVID-19 relief funds, Letcher County’s limited resources are tied up with simple repair and maintenance.

“With our roads right now, there’s so much damage I don’t know where the money is going to come from,” Miles said.

‘FEMA should simplify as much as possible’

FEMA knows accessing hazard mitigation funds is a challenge for many communities.

The agency agreed to find ways to simplify the application process after a 2021 Government Accountability Office report found many local governments struggled with the complexity of the grant application process. Others had access to technical expertise or could hire expensive consultants to navigate the paperwork.

FEMA recently solicited public comments to inform potential changes to the agency’s hazard mitigation Program and Policy Guide, which was last updated in 2015.

In one public comment, the Association of State Floodplain Coordinators, a nonprofit organization for people working to reduce flood loss, said FEMA’s hazard mitigation program keeps getting more complex. “More complex programs are almost impossible for low-capacity jurisdictions to administer, FEMA should simplify as much as possible,” the association wrote.

The association said FEMA should let states run their own hazard mitigation grant programs so they can respond to disasters without seeking federal approval for projects.

Tate, of the University of Iowa, said FEMA should invest more in so-called technical assistance grants that help under-resourced communities manage the complicated grant process.

“Larger and wealthier communities are the ones that have those capabilities already,” Tate said. “So, it's easier for them to compete for these projects than the smaller, rural, poor communities.”

FEMA provides some money to help under-resourced communities with the process. but Tate said that investment has so far been too small to close the gap. Kentucky has received $191,000 in technical assistance since 1988. Emergency management officials have used that money to support salaries and training, according to FEMA data.

Stephen Eisenman, founder and strategy director at the Anthropocene Alliance, a nonprofit that helps communities across the country prepare for climate change, said that Congress could rewrite the grant program and distribute the funding more equitably — especially if voters support candidates who acknowledge the threats posed by climate change and want to invest in mitigation.

“Kentucky's being screwed over by the storms, and so has almost every other state and city in the South, and yet, that's where the least political support for action on climate change is,” Eisenman said.

KyCIR reached out to the office of U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, a Republican representing most of eastern Kentucky who has helped secure more than $800 million in flood control studies and projects in his district, to ask about FEMA’s hazard mitigation program. His spokesperson didn't follow up with KyCIR's interview requests by publication time.

KyCIR also sent interview requests to the chairs and vice chairs of both the Kentucky Senate and House energy and environment committees to discuss the state’s disaster mitigation programs. They did not respond to inquiries.

When recovery isn’t enough

FEMA pays for some smaller-scale mitigation projects, such as reinforcing damaged roads, as part of its Public Assistance program for reimbursing counties' cleanup and recovery costs. Unlike hazard mitigation grants, that money is designated for counties hit by a disaster.

Watson said most of that spending in Clay County will go toward getting things back to the way they were before the flood, to what FEMA calls “pre-disaster conditions.”

The problem, Watson said, is that repairing the damage doesn’t solve the problems like unstable infrastructure that made the last flood so destructive.

As he drove through Oneida one day in September, Watson pointed out a large pipe that became clogged with debris, causing the water to spill over the road and flood nearby homes. Watson said FEMA might reimburse the county’s spending on repairing the pipe, but it will still probably overflow again during a heavy rain.

“Here's the reality: you can spend a half a million dollars going up the holler, repairing roads and bridges, doing bank stabilization, ditching, asphalt repair, all the above,” Watson said, but if the county doesn’t find long-term solutions to infrastructure problems, “it's all gonna be wiped out again.”

Many policies the county is navigating were written by Congress decades ago. Watson worries what’s on the books now can’t keep up with the disasters Clay County is facing. He said he hopes federal officials learn from what’s happened here and consider updating disaster policies to make it easier for people to access much-needed aid as disasters become more frequent.

If officials really want to improve the hazard mitigation assistance process, Watson said they should do a better job spreading the word about how it works so that more counties like his can take advantage of federal grants.

“I think the biggest part of the improvement is education right now,” Watson said.

Contact reporter Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org

The post Federal funding for natural disasters fails Ky. counties that need it most appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

What To Make Of Some Young Evangelicals Abandoning Trump Over Climate Change? Wednesday, Sep 30 2020 


Emily Robertson is a senior at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. She’s also an evangelical Christian, which makes her part of a key voting bloc for President Donald Trump.

But Trump won’t get a vote from Robertson, who describes faith as the most important thing in her life, and who is a fellow with the growing Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. She does not like the president’s climate change agenda, or rather, the lack of one.


‘False Hope’ Or Four More Years? Ohio Valley Stakeholders Reflect On Trump Energy Policy  Monday, Aug 31 2020 


In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump was all-in on the fossil fuel industry. In a 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia, the candidate proudly accepted an endorsement from that state’s coal association, donning a hardhat while he mimed digging coal. To thundering applause, he promised to bring back coal jobs to the struggling Appalachian coalfields. 

Four years later, there are fewer jobs in coal than ever, and that enthusiasm was largely absent from the energy pitch the Republican Party made to the American people in its four-night-long convention last week. That’s left stakeholders in Ohio Valley coal regions reading the tea leaves on what another four years of a Trump Administration might look like. 

This story is the first in a series revisiting themes, places and people in the new Ohio Valley ReSource book, “Appalachian Fall.”


‘The Proof Is In The Pudding:’ Coal Country Responds To Democrats’ Clean Energy Transition  Monday, Aug 24 2020 


Democrats made their pitch to the American people during a largely virtual Democratic National Convention and addressing climate change emerged as a central tenet of the party’s plan. 

The party platform spells out a major investment in green energy jobs and infrastructure in order for America to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission no later than by 2050. Environmental justice is a key component of the Democrat’s climate plan and it references ensuring fossil fuel workers and communities receive investment and support during this clean energy transition. 

“As President, Joe Biden will rejoin the international climate agreement, and the United States will once again lead on this critical issue at home,” New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said while standing in front of a field of solar panels. “He’ll invest in energy workers and he will deliver for working families across the U.S., helping them build meaningful careers, while accelerating our nation and world into a clean, green 21st century and well beyond.”


What’s Happened To Ky.’s Snowy Winters? Blame, Or Credit, Our Warming Climate Tuesday, Mar 3 2020 

Snow is melting faster in Kentucky as warmer average winters bring about fewer days of snow cover, according to State Climatologist Stuart Foster.

Foster, with the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University, analyzed decades of winter weather data across the Commonwealth looking at how long snow sticks around.

In three of four cities, he found a defined downward trend in the number of days when snow covered the ground. And across the state, he’s seen fewer winters where cold temperatures maintained the snow cover for weeks on end.

Kentucky hasn’t experienced a severe bout of winter weather since the late 1970’s. Foster’s data is consistent with a warming climate.

“The thing that really stands out is not so much a year-to-year fluctuation in temperature or snowfall, but it’s been more than 40 years since we’ve had what we would call a harsh winter,” Foster said.

The state’s last winter with unrelenting snow, wind and cold occurred in January 1978 when Louisville recorded more than 15.7 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service.

Kenton County Public Library

The 1978 blizzard in Covington, KY.

Snow accumulated after several small storms in the first half of the month, only to be met with a blizzard toward January’s end. Some residents were trapped in their homes while Kentucky issued a state of emergency across most of the Commonwealth.

“You used to see those types of winters with greater frequency,” Foster said.

But that doesn’t mean the state hasn’t seen its share of cold snaps and winter weather. In 1994, Shelbyville set the record low temperature for the state at -37 degrees. In 2009, a wintry mix brought freezing rain that knocked out power for more than 600,000 homes.

Rather, Kentucky wintertime temperatures are highly variable from one year to the next, Foster said. Some winters it snows quite a bit, others not at all, he said. That’s in part driven by the state’s wintertime proximity to the polar jet stream – the swiftly-moving band of wind caused by the earth’s rotation.

But overall, the winters are getting warmer, and as a result, the snow melts more quickly. During the last 30 years, Louisville, Lexington and Paducah have seen the average number of days with snow cover decline by about 10 percent, Foster said.

“With the warming conditions and the lack of any really prolonged harsh winters, we’ve seen a reduction of days with snow cover,” Foster said.

This year’s winter weather has been wet and warm with not a lot of snowfall, but a whole lot of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Far from a white Christmas, temperatures rose into the 60s on Christmas day, and hit the 70s in early January. That was followed by a third straight year of Ohio River flooding in February.

Temperatures in Kentucky have risen an average of about 1.41 degrees over the last three decades, according to the Associated Press.

The warmer climate increases the odds of extreme weather events fueling storms as well as droughts. And for the last four decades, it’s meant Kentucky winters with less snow cover.

Just Transition: Amid Climate Debate And Coal’s Decline, West Virginia Considers Its Future Monday, Feb 17 2020 

On a recent soggy Wednesday evening, dozens of West Virginians packed a conference room inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center to discuss the need for a “just transition” for coal-impacted communities.

As the nation grapples with climate change, the need for a fair transition for workers and communities that depend upon coal jobs and revenue has also gained traction. Nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful has touted some version of the idea, ranging from the expansive “Green New Deal” championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden’s more modest mix of worker training and direct assistance for coal country.

In West Virginia, discussions are starting to get attention in the state’s capital despite strong political support for the coal industry.

“When you’re hearing a call for a just transition for coal-reliant communities, folks are saying ‘look, starting now and into the future, we’re going to decarbonize the economy,’” said Ann Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “There will be disproportionate losses imposed on coal-reliant communities. And that’s unfair. So we’re going to offset the losses. And that is where I think this is a good thing. And it’s also tricky.”

Eisenberg was one of a handful of experts who spoke at the event hosted by West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Climate Change (an offshoot of conservation group Friends of Blackwater), and the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Three groups hosted a just transition discussion on Feb. 5, 2020 in Charleston, WV.

The speakers facilitated a conversation about what constitutes a “just transition” as well as how West Virginia and other regions that depend on coal could actually get there.

Adele Morris with the Brookings Institution said the first step is to acknowledge the clear data about coal. Even without a comprehensive climate policy, the fuel is already losing ground in the region and across the country. Low natural gas prices and the falling cost of renewable energy have priced many coal plants out of the market.

hindsight2020-mine-empAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Federal data show since 2009, mining employment and coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in the Ohio Valley. The energy shift is already underway, Morris said, but without the part that would help communities make the transition.

hindsight2020-mine-prodAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“We’re in it. We’re in the transition,” said Morris, who is a senior fellow and policy director at the nonpartisan think tank. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it’s not fair. And that’s what I think should be urgently at the top of the agenda of the policymakers from coal country, and they’re not, in my opinion.”

Legislative Attempt

One lawmaker is making a pitch in West Virginia. State Del. Evan Hansen, a Democrat representing the north-central county of Monongalia, has introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a state Just Transition Office, and a community-led advisory committee that would focus on helping West Virginia communities affected by the decline of coal.

“The primary goal here is to write a just transition plan for the state of West Virginia that would look at ways to funnel funding into these communities and other types of resources into these communities in a manner that’s led by what people in those communities think is best,” Hansen said.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Colorado. On Wednesday, the West Virginia version passed out of one of the two committees to which it was referred, but Hansen acknowledges it faces a long road to becoming law with the state’s legislative session more than halfway done.

Still, he believes the appetite is growing among the state’s lawmakers to address coal’s decline.

“I would say privately many legislators of both parties acknowledge that there is a transition going on and that this is one of the most important issues that we need to deal with as a Legislature,” Hansen said.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill, including the West Virginia Coal Association.

“Sounds to me like that they think that it would be much better if it were something other than the coal miners,” said the group’s president Bill Raney. “And that bothers me a whole lot because we got the best coal miners in the world.”

Raney’s group is pushing a bill this legislative session that would require West Virginia coal plants to burn the same amount of coal they did in 2019 in the years ahead, regardless of what makes most economic sense.

Of major note during the discussion was how to pay for a “just transition.”

Today most economic transition work in the region comes from federal programs including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Abandoned Mine Land program funding, which offer grants to coal-affected communities in the millions of dollars range.

Morris has estimated the region will require tens of billions of dollars over the next decade and would require some kind of regulatory leadership from Washington, D.C., preferably a carbon tax. Democratic candidates who have supported the idea have differing ways to fund it, although most rely heavily on investing in clean energy and decarbonizing the economy through a “Green New Deal.”

Some in the region have encouraged lawmakers and candidates looking at these climate policies to engage with residents directly.

That includes Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers of America. In September, he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He expressed concern the type of sweeping change Democratic presidential candidates are promising may be too big of a lift for Congress given its past track record in helping coal country.

“We want our health care saved, and if you can’t do that, and it’s been 10 years, how do you think we’re going to believe that you’re going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment?” he said.

Kentucky Conversations 

Chuck Fluharty, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, helped to organize a community-centered, just transition model in eastern Kentucky called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. He said SOAR has shown this type of work is possible, especially if a community-centric approach is embraced. However, it’s not easy.

SOAR’s premise is built upon a collective impact investing model that engaged the public, private and philanthropic sectors.

IMG_4112Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

“The real proof of the pudding is in how broad collective commitment is, and is it there for the money or is it there for the future?” he said. “How much it is about investing and not simply dropping dollars on the table.”

Some politicians hope to engage coalfield communities directly about how to balance implementing climate legislation while protecting workers and investing in communities. Kentucky Democratic state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker recently launched a series of town meetings on the subject in the heart of eastern Kentucky coal country.

Even among those who support a just transition, questions remain about how best to do it. Morris said there is little data on what has worked in economic transitions in the past. Her team has looked at the impact of military base closures, for example, but said the analogy isn’t perfect. Worker retraining efforts often have mixed results.

“There’s this policy design challenge of how do you get from the wholesale dollars of the federal government into well designed retail level grants and assistance and so on,” she said. “I’m still struggling with exactly how you do that in a way that gets those resources out, but does it in a way that that gives people comfort that it’s responsibly allocated.”

In a report published last July, Morris and colleagues at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University quantified just how much of a coal-producing county’s budget came from coal, and how big a hole their budgets might face without coal revenue.

Then the authors turned to the various policy proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which would set a price on each ton of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Morris said that the revenue generated by such policies could be steered into the type of investments needed and at a scale that would make a just transition more likely.

For example, a carbon tax of $25 per ton would likely raise a trillion dollars in revenue over 10 years, she said.

“And that kind of revenue allows for a very generous support for coal-reliant areas,” Morris said.

After Deadly Floods, West Virginia Created A Resiliency Office. It’s Barely Functioning. Monday, Jan 27 2020 

The rain came hard and fast early on the morning of June 23, 2016. By 2 p.m., water was knee deep in Bill Bell’s appliance store on Main Street in Rainelle, a small town on the western edge of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Bell began elevating the washing machines and dishwashers, thinking that would be enough. Within hours, he’d lose it all. Today, his shop is up and running once again, but the memory of the flood runs deep.

“To be honest with you, everybody here sleeps on pins and needles when it calls for a big rain,” he says.

John Wyatt, a Baptist minister, city councilor and local music and craft shop owner, remembers pulling his friends and neighbors out of the water.

He helped rescue 22 people using a two-person kayak and a flat-bottomed boat: The owner of the local funeral home and her elderly father. A young couple stranded on top of the baseball dugout at the local park. He remembers the swiftness of the water and the way propane gas drifted on top of the torrent like an eerie fog. As he drives through the neighborhood, he says quietly that not everyone survived.

“The second house down that street, there was an old gentleman that lost his life,” he says.

Kara Lofton/WVPB

Flooding in the town of White Sulfur Springs in June 2016.

About a two hour-drive to the north, Sarah Bird had gone out to run a few errands that day. A few hours later she couldn’t get back into her small town of Clendenin, located right on the Elk River. She decided to head to a nearby hotel. Then, the bridge leading to the shopping center where it was located washed out. She spent the next two days in that hotel. Much of the region lacked power and employees at the nearby Kroger grocery store barbecued food out of the freezer cases for displaced residents.

When the waters receded and she was finally able to get back, she recalls every moment of that drive.

“Town was devastated,” she says, beginning to cry. “It was gray from the mud.”

She was one of the lucky ones. The waters got close, but they didn’t reach her house. Twenty-three people were killed by the 2016 floods, making it one of the deadliest on record. More than 1,500 homes and businesses were destroyed, and another 2,500 significantly damaged, while losses to highways and bridges totaled about $53 million.

Three-and-a-half-years later, the worst-hit communities are still rebuilding. The National Weather Service would later say the intensity and amount of rain that fell in late June 2016, was of a magnitude expected once in 1,000 years.

Scientists, some state lawmakers and even federal agencies are sounding the alarm that West Virginia’s once-in-a-millennia 2016 downpour that lead to catastrophic flooding is not an isolated event. The hydrologic system that humanity has relied on and built its infrastructure around is changing. The future will be both more intense and more variable.

But as communities rebuild, the state’s response to the climate challenge has been mixed, at best, raising questions about how prepared people will be for the next disaster. While some officials and planning documents do acknowledge the threat of climate change to West Virginia, a state office established after the 2016 flood to enhance resiliency has stalled.

“There’s a disconnect there,” scientist Nicolas Zegre said. An associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University, Zegre studies the state’s water resources. He says too many officials are still avoiding talking about climate change.

“If we can’t even have conversations in Charleston about what climate change is, and that it’s happening,” he asked, “how can we have hazard mitigation designed in a way that meaningfully protects the public when climate change isn’t even part of that decision making?”

‘1,000-year downpour’

Flooding is not new in West Virginia. The Mountain State is one of the most flood-prone states in the country, largely because of the topography. Rain that falls on the state’s mountain peaks eventually runs down into the steep valleys, or hollows. West Virginia experiences both riverine flooding, when streams and rivers overflow their banks, and flash flooding.

In addition, many homes and businesses are near those flood-prone waterways, according to Brian Farkas. Farkas leads the West Virginia Conservation Agency, the administrative arm of the State Conservation Committee, which is charged with overseeing conservation efforts. He said West Virginia has one of the highest stream-to-land ratios on the North American continent. With flat land in short supply, he said much of the state’s development has occurred in the narrow valleys along creeks.

“Floodplains became a natural place for development,” he said. “That’s all well and good until you have a series of rain events, and you have streams that are just doing what streams are designed to do when there is a lot of water: They come out of their bank, they go to the floodplain.”

Brittany Patterson

In Rainelle, West Virginia some businesses never reopened after the 2016 floods.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, there have been 2,302 flood events in West Virginia between January 1993 and July 2017, resulting in an estimated $1.8 billion in property damages and 103 deaths. Flood-producing extreme precipitation is the costliest and most severe natural hazard West Virginia faces.

But the event that began in late June 2016 was different. Torrential rain hammered southern West Virginia. In some places, more than 10 inches fell, much in just 12 to 18 hours.

In the first paragraph of the executive summary of a study conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, on lessons learned from the 2016 floods, the agency states that while many residents felt the flooding was as bad as it could get, that’s not true.

“In fact, this type of event could happen more frequently than previously thought,” it states.

Setbacks For Resilience

Following the 2016 floods, the West Virginia Legislature took proactive steps to address flood risk. It passed House Bill 2935, which created a joint legislative committee to address flooding and created a new state office dedicated to boosting resilience.

According to the bill, the stated goal of the newly-created State Resiliency Office was to coordinate “all economic and community resiliency planning and implementation efforts, including but not limited to flood protection programs and activities in the state.” That included updating the state’s flood protection plan “no less than biannually” and recommending legislation to reduce or mitigate flood damage.

In short, the State Resiliency Office and its board were supposed to be the state’s one-stop-shop for making communities better able to withstand catastrophic flooding.

Brittany Patterson

One of dozens of structures in Rainelle that has been abandoned and is awaiting demolition.

Today, the office is barely functional. It has one employee. State lawmakers are proposing new legislation to reshape its structure.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, despite having three meetings in 2017 to stand up the agency, in June 2018 the State Resiliency Office was told to disband further activities by the state Department of Commerce under which it is currently situated.

The West Virginia Department of Commerce did not make someone available to speak about the State Resiliency Office despite multiple interview requests.

Since then, Adjunct General James Hoyer, head of the West Virginia National Guard, and who was made head of the 2016 flooding recovery efforts in June 2018, said he has largely taken on the duties of the State Resiliency Office.

“I think that’s an important effort going forward,” he said. “But I think what we’ve got to start to look at is how do we build resiliency, not just from the standpoint of disaster, but economic resiliency, and pull all those things together and develop some plans going forward.”

When asked to what extent the Guard or other agencies working on flood recovery are factoring in climate change in building resiliency, Hoyer said it’s not something he’s thinking about.

“I would tell you as the guy in uniform, you know, my job’s not to get into those debates,” he said. “My job is to address the long term, you know, resiliency piece going forward.”

Missing Element

House Bill 2935 also created the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. Members like Democratic state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, said the body has focused on the state’s botched flood recovery response efforts and not flood prevention as its charter states.

“You used the term climate change, and to my knowledge, that term has not been used ever in a joint flood committee,” he said.

The committee’s charter said it has a statutory obligation to consider how West Virginia can be better prepared in the face of future flooding by studying “flood damage reduction and floodplain management” as well as “flood protection.” In a September letter to the committee’s chairs, Baldwin and fellow Democratic Sen. Glenn Jeffries expressed concerns that the committee could be doing more on prevention. Baldwin said while he understands recovery is important, factoring in the future climate is important to lessening the impacts of flood disasters.

“The specific constitutional charge of the flood committee is flood prevention. I mean, it uses that terminology several times,” he added. “But, you know, from a very general 30,000-foot view, the committee has done no work on flood prevention so far.”

The co-chairs of the committee say they have been focused on getting people back into their homes after a scandal with the way nearly $150 million in federal disaster relief grants were being administered through the RISE program.

Republican state Sen. Chandler Swope is one of the chairs. Moving forward, he said he expects to focus more on prevention and pointed to recent presentations made to the committee from a firm familiar with disaster recovery in Puerto Rico. When asked specifically if climate change is being incorporated into the committee’s prevention efforts, Swope said the body is not planning for a specific future, but said any resilience work being done in the state will help.

“But climate change has been happening for millions of years and it’s going to continue to change and you just have to deal with it,” he said.

The state doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to implementing its own recommendations to reduce flooding. In 2001 after another historic flood, a panel came together and developed a set of comprehensive recommendations to reduce the damage from flooding. As reported by The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the report sat on the shelf collecting dust.

The state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan updated in 2018 does explicitly mention the threats West Virginia faces from a changing climate, including the impact of intense rainfall events.

“If climate change has an effect on those things over a period of time, if we’re trending towards a dryer or it’s going to be wetter, then those are factors we considered in the mitigation plan,” said Lonnie Bryson, recovery grants section chief for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “So we can mitigate the things we’re aware of. But 2016 was just such a magnitude that there’s no predicting that.”

Scientists, like Nicolas Zegre at WVU, said it’s true that researchers cannot be certain about future natural disasters, and they can’t say when a precipitation event like 2016 will happen again.

But they say the models are clear, and more intense precipitation events are expected.

“Nothing is going to be meaningful unless we have honest conversations about climate change and what it means for West Virginia,” he said.

For homeowners, some resilience is being incorporated in the rebuilding efforts that have occurred since the 2016 floods, largely driven by federal standards.

Federal Backstop

On a recent drive through Rainelle, the neighborhoods do look markedly different than they did just a few years ago. Spray painted X’s mark homes now abandoned that will eventually be torn down. Most of those that have been rebuilt are obvious — they tower 8 to 12 feet above their neighbors. That’s intentional.

Much of the rebuilding following the 2016 floods is being done with federal money. A presidential disaster declaration unlocked millions of dollars in federal aid from both FEMA and Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. In recent years both agencies have adopted stipulations for federal disaster aid grants that ensure homes damaged by natural disasters are rebuilt to be more resilient for the next one.

Brittany Patterson

Homes rebuilt in the floodplain are being elevated.

According to a FEMA spokesperson, homes that are reconstructed using Hazard Mitigation Grant program dollars are built two feet above the required base flood elevation, or 100-year floodplain, in West Virginia.

But the Trump administration in 2016 also rescinded an Obama-era executive order that tasked agencies to incorporate climate change into proposed infrastructure projects. FEMA had been soliciting input and drafting new rules.

Carolyn Kousky is executive director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which for 35 years has studied disaster risk management. She said the order would have created uniform guidance on rebuilding and incorporating changing flood conditions due to climate change. As it stands, states and municipalities largely set the tone for how climate change is incorporated into rebuilding homes and infrastructure.

“I think a lot of it is left up to what local governments choose to do,“ she said. “Smaller and less affluent communities might not have the resources or the expertise.”

Improving Data

In the aftermath of the 2016 floods, FEMA put out a press release that said West Virginia is more resilient and better prepared. The agency funded new maps in eight of the areas hardest hit by flooding in June 2016, a spokesperson said.

The agency also invested in a digital flood mapping tool, one of the first in the country to cover an entire state. The WV Flood Tool has been in production since 2007, but investment after the 2016 floods allowed project developers to expand the project to provide communities with a detailed picture of flood risk and landslide risk.

Eric Douglas/WVPB

Three-and-a-half years later, Clendenin, West Virginia has largely recovered from the deadly 2016 floods although some homes still need to be rebuilt or torn down.

Under the “risk” tab, users can not only see their flood risk per FEMA’s 100-year floodplain maps, but, if available, FEMA’s updated flood maps. All critical infrastructure — hospitals, schools, utilities — are mapped on the tool to the 500-year floodplain.

“We’re going to be able to identify the risk, or be able to map that in detail like it’s never been done before statewide,” said Kurt Donaldson, manager of the WV GIS Technical Center at West Virginia University and project manager for the flood tool.

He said advances in technology in the last decade have made creating a centralized flood risk tool possible, but he also said the project only focuses on riverine flooding and landslide risk and can only input data it has available, and much of that data doesn’t take into consideration future climate change.

Relying on FEMA floodplain maps to assess flood risk is problematic because the maps were created to serve the agency’s insurance program, said Larry Larson, director emeritus and senior policy adviser for the National Association of State Floodplain Managers. The maps notoriously don’t cover all flood risk.

“It has become the flood risk standard, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s how people perceive it,” he said.

In West Virginia, most counties have adopted a “model floodplain ordinance” that goes beyond FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program minimum guidelines. As a result, in most places new structures built in the floodplain to be raised an additional two feet above the 100-year floodplain.

Ray Perry, the floodplain manager for Logan County and head of the West Virginia Floodplain Managers Association, said the requirement is helpful to create a buffer against flooding but he would like to see the state go further and create a similar model ordinance for building codes.

“If you’re one of the people that the floodplain ordinance doesn’t necessarily apply to you because you’re not in a floodplain, you can’t enforce it on somebody,” he said. “Without the building code, then you’re just doomed to repeat it over and over.”

New Attitude

Inside John Wyatt’s music and craft shop in downtown Rainelle guitars and banjos line the walls. He says more than three years after the flooding most of the renovations are complete and he hopes to open the store to the public soon.

Brittany Patterson

John Wyatt poses for a photo in his music and craft shop in Rainelle, WV.

Reminders of the flood still remain. Across the street an Exxon gas station is empty, the cost of Supreme $2.99 in perpetuity. Next door, a sign advertises an auction for the Rainelle Motor Lodge. The motel was abandoned after the flood.

Newly-elected Ranielle Mayor Jason Smith said the 2016 flood has been tough economically for the town. Asked if he thought Rainelle was better prepared now for a disaster of that magnitude, he said he hopes so.

“But you know, we don’t have a crystal ball to look in and know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “We’re working on some issues with that to try to help the flood control in town. It’s a long process, and we hope that we can work all together and make that happen, but at the same time, you know, things like this just take time.”

Wyatt is now a city council member in Ranielle. He and others are thinking about the future of this coal turned timber town that has been struggling in recent decades. The community is raising money to build a community center and he hopes Rainelle can become a destination for tourists traveling the scenic Midland Trail. He said while the town is still struggling — dozens of structures still need to be torn down, for example — the flooding also changed his thinking about the place he’s lived much of life.

“Maybe the most important new construction has been the attitude of the people because they’re beginning to see Rainelle as a town that can survive, that’s not going to die, that does have hope for the future,” he said.

This story was produced in partnership with InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. Caught Off Guard was produced as part of ICN’s National Environmental News Network.

Kentucky Leads The Country In 2020 Coal Retirements Tuesday, Jan 21 2020 

Two of the largest coal-fired power plant retirements in the U.S. in 2020 are happening in Kentucky.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Paradise Unit 3 near Drakesboro is scheduled to shutter this December while Owensboro’s Elmer Smith Generating Station will cease operations in June.

These older, more inefficient power plants are the latest to be priced out of the market, and are now trudging toward the elephant graveyard of legacy coal-fired plants in the Ohio Valley.

Together, power generation from the two plants represents more than a quarter of the total coal-fired capacity set to retire this year, based on an analysis using U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

“Basically what you hear from the experts in the field is there is not going to be another coal plant built in Kentucky or anywhere else, probably… forever,” said Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for Kentucky Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator.

Sales of electricity in Kentucky have declined over the last decade, mostly due to a loss in large industrial customers, and future increases are expected to be offset as people use less energy overall due to energy efficiency improvements (LED lightbulbs, Energy Star appliances etc.), according to EIA data.

So new power generation is likely to come online as older plants retire and as customers begin demanding cleaner sources of energy.

“You’re starting to see customers, you know big commercial and industrial customers, who are saying ‘OK, we’re in your service territory but we want renewable power,’” Melnykovych said.

The Future of Coal And Natural Gas

Coal power has long been a staple of the Ohio Valley. The Appalachian Basin provided the coal and the Ohio River supplied the water. Together, they’ve spun the steam turbines that have powered an era’s worth of industry.

But for the most part, the efficiency of legacy plants are locked into the time they were built.

“There’s also a certain point where coal-fired units tend to reach the end of their viability, as far as their age, and it doesn’t make sense to invest more money into units,” said Scott Brooks, TVA spokesman, about the Paradise Fossil Plant.

To look at it another way, it can take a legacy coal plant 24 hours to begin generating power while a combined cycle natural gas plant goes from 0 to 100 within minutes.

TVA’s Paradise Fossil Plant is one such example. Unit 3 just doesn’t have the flexibility to power up when the extra energy capacity is needed, and it’s not worth investing in, Brooks said. The utility has already made up for the coal plant’s power generation by the addition of a 1,025 megawatt combined cycle gas plant that TVA built in 2017 at the same site.

Across the state, most of the coal generation that’s retired has been replaced by natural gas.

In 2008, 94 percent of Kentucky’s electricity came from coal. Today, that’s closer to about 75 percent, according to EIA data. Meanwhile, the use of natural gas for power generation has exploded, from about 1 percent to 18 percent of the state’s energy mix from 2008 to 2018.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean coal’s days are numbered either. Minus the two plants retiring this year, there are still 12 coal-fired power plants in Kentucky and utilities are incentivized to get a healthy return on their investments before putting them out to pasture.

Louisville Gas and Electric for example, has said its four coal-fired power plants have remaining lifespans of about 30 years.

Last summer, the former head of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet predicted that coal plant retirements would slow in the coming years.

“Coal-fired plants that exist in Kentucky are fairly modern vintage so I think we should level out and not have many future retirements for many years in Kentucky,” said former Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Charles Snavely.

The longer those coal and natural gas power plants operate, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, the bigger risk we take. The consensus of the scientific community is that humans must reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Solar Picking Up Steam In Kentucky

Growth in new solar and wind energy generation is expected to outpace natural gas this year across the country, but not in Kentucky.

No new large-scale solar projects are expected to come online this year, according to the EIA, but the pace is expected to pick up in the coming years. A company called BayWa r.e. Solar Projects is planning an 80 megawatts solar field in Harrison County for 2021, according to the EIA.

Following the closure of the Elmer Smith Station, Owensboro will continue to purchase coal power from Big Rivers through 2026, but it’s also approved a separate agreement to purchase 32 megawatts of solar power from an array in Western Kentucky that’s set to open in 2022.

Meanwhile, Henderson, Kentucky, has been reviewing more than two dozen proposals to energize its city with up to 150 megawatts of solar power. The city’s utility manager hopes to award a contract early this year and complete construction by 2023.

Kentucky’s Public Service Commission has also seen more interest in utility-scale solar.

“I think there is likelihood that we will see some fairly substantial solar projects coming to the state in the next five years or so,” said Melnykovych, with the Public Service Commission.

Melnykovych thinks much of that solar will be built by business owners competing with utilities in regional energy markets.

The future of distributed solar, also known as rooftop solar, largely depends upon how the Public Service Commission decides to value net metering credits in utility-filed rate cases that can begin going before the commission this year.

Kentucky Convent Cutting Carbon To Fight Climate Change Friday, Jan 10 2020 

A convent of Roman Catholic sisters living near Bardstown, Kentucky have dedicated their lives to charity for the last 200 years. During the Civil War, they nursed wounded soldiers. During the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, they opened the first nursing home in Kentucky for AIDS patients.

Three years ago the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth made a new commitment: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2037 at their ministries in Kentucky and Belize.

Their goal is in line with recommendations from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says mankind must act now to reduce and offset carbon emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

The IPCC report finds that reaching net-zero emissions by 2040 would significantly limit warming temperatures. So why did the sisters choose 2037?

“It’s a little more aggressive because the sisters realize not everyone is able to do that. So part of what they are doing is trying to make up for what other people are not able to do,” said Caroline Cromer, sustainability director.

The sisters live on a sprawling 370-acre property in Nazareth, Kentucky. Founded by Catherine Spalding — you know, of Spalding University — and Bishop John Baptist David in 1812, the diocese focused on providing religious education to Catholic families.

When the convent first opened, the sisters used to travel by train. Now they have three charging stations for electric vehicles. Dormitories that once served a college on the campus have become housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Their mission, too, has evolved, said Sister Susan Gatz.

Old-school Catholic doctrine said God gave people the earth, and that humans have “dominion” over it. These days the sisters focus on how everything on earth is interconnected. The sisters see themselves as stewards of God’s creation, and sustainability is part of that mission, Gatz said.

“As we continue to degrade the air, the water, the land, we ourselves are going to suffer because we are a part of this. We are not over it. So I think shifting that thinking is a huge task for humanity right now,” she said.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Sister Susan Gatz at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Across the property, the sisters have begun planting native trees to increase shade and offset the urban heat island effect. They’ve planted pollinator plant species and released Monarch butterflies, whose populations are declining. They’re cutting back on mowing to increase habitat for Kentucky critters, and all the lawn care that remains is done with electric equipment.

On the roof of one building, just across from the spires of the church, the sisters have installed about  140 solar panels — one of two installations on the property.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

This year the sisters are calculating ways to offset their carbon footprint for air travel. And by the year 2047, they plan for all of their ministries to be carbon free, in the U.S., Belize, India, Nepal and Botswana, Africa.

“For us it’s a spiritual reality because of our relationship with the earth, because of the holiness of creation, because of our relationship to the creator,” Gatz said.

The sisters manage a community garden and have begun incorporating the produce into their meals: cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and squash, among others. They even compost, and have their own rainwater collection system.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

A community garden at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Recently, the sisters adopted “Meatless Mondays” to lessen their carbon footprint from resource-intensive agriculture. Not all the changes are easy, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

Sister Evelyn Hurley is going to be 105 years old in March. She’s willing to put up with Meatless Mondays, but she didn’t seem all that thrilled about it.

“I mean I know it’s very important to take care of the earth. I know that. I’m fully aware of that,” Hurley said. “But of course I’m so much older too. I think all these young people have all these other ideas, but well, I’ll go along with anything that’s decided.”

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Rising Waters: Aging Levees, Climate Change And The Challenge To Hold Back The Ohio River Thursday, Dec 19 2019 

When 78-year-old Jim Casto looks at the towering floodwalls that line downtown Huntington, West Virginia, he sees a dark history of generations past.

The longtime journalist and local historian is short in stature, yet tall in neighborhood tales. On Casto’s hand shines a solid gold ring, signifying his more than 40 years of reporting at the local paper. “It was a lot cheaper to give me a ring than to give me a pay raise,” he said with a chuckle.

He walks up to the entrance of Harris Riverfront Park, one of 21 gate openings in the more than 3.5 miles of floodwalls covered in decades of charcoal-colored grime and dirt.

The river has shaped the city, providing the transportation for coal, steel and chemical products. But Casto also knows the river has the power to destroy, as it did before the omnipresent walls were there.

Casto published a photobook on the most destructive flood the Ohio River Valley has seen.

“January of 1937 was exceptionally warm. And that meant that the snow on the hillsides melted much earlier than usual and faster than usual. Then, there were 19 consecutive days of rain,” Casto said.

Huntington District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, during the 1937 flood.

He points to the number 69 near the top of a decorative gauge marking river heights.

“That is the ’37 flood,” he said. The river rose to nearly 20 feet above flood stage — more than 69 feet high.

Thousands of Huntington residents were forced from their homes. The county courthouse became a virtual port for rescue boats.

“As Time magazine in ’37 described it: ‘Hell and High Water,’” Casto said.

Ohio River communities from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, were inundated. About a million people were left homeless; 385 people were killed; and the flood, adjusted for current inflation, caused an estimated $9.12 billion in damages.

In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a mammoth effort to construct hundreds of miles of levees, floodwalls and numerous pump stations to keep back rising water. Those defenses are now, on average, nearly 60 years old. Huntington’s system was built in 1943, one of the oldest in the basin.

That advanced age worries local officials from several Ohio Valley towns who look after these defenses, plagued by rust, antiquated designs, archaic pump engines and, in some places, sinkholes. They say funding is scarce to upgrade World War II-era safeguards that protect $120.7 billion in property and about 720,000 people throughout the Ohio River basin.

Huntington is one of a dozen levee systems in the basin that the Corps of Engineers classifies as a “high risk” due to the combination of aging infrastructure and the people and property that would be harmed if the system were to fail. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates aging levee systems like these across the country will need $80 billion in upgrades within the next decade.

The challenge is made greater by the growing menace of climate change. A warmer, wetter climate could intensify the severity and frequency of flooding and send up to 50% more water flowing through Ohio Valley waterways within this century.

Liam Niemeyer

Mike Pemberton (left, bottom) shows a dated sensor that uses mercury in Pump Station Number Six in Ironton, Ohio.

Aging Protection

With the twist of a cold handle, a heavy, metal door creaks open, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous Pump Station Number Six on the west side of Ironton, Ohio, along the Ohio River.

“Like going into the Frankenstein laboratory, wasn’t it?” said Mike Pemberton, who’s managed flood defense for decades in the city of more than 10,000 people, a half-hour downstream from Huntington. Four gigantic red pumps protrude 10 feet from the ground below a raised platform, where large, green electrical switchboards from the 1940s take up most of the space.

Pemberton motions to a sensor with a weighted pulley that uses mercury to tell how much water is being pumped during high water; modern equipment, on the other hand, would be computerized. He said it’s fairly reliable, but sometimes the mercury container collects a film of carbon material that he shakes off.

“Slap the side of it, and sometimes that’ll clean the carbon off the mercury,” Pemberton said.

Ironton’s flood defense system of pump stations, levees and floodwalls were also built in the 1940s, much like in Huntington. The sensor is something he can see and more easily maintain. Yet some things remain outside his experienced sight, including the more than half-century-old pipes that run through the station and the sluice gates that seal water from flooding the station itself.

“We don’t know the condition of the inside of that pipe. We don’t know if that gate could have a stress crack in it,” Pemberton said. “That’s some of the things I kind of worry about.”

Pemberton’s maintenance worries extend far beyond to nine other archaic pump stations, almost four miles of earthen levee and over another mile of floodwall. He said a local tax levy that generates about $260,000 a year for his department mostly funds salaries for three employees and daily maintenance on the flood protection system. That includes tasks such as mowing the grass on top of levees and greasing pump motors.

Ironton voted in 2014 to double the tax levy. Pemberton campaigned for the measure by hanging signs marking the 1937 flood level throughout the city’s historic downtown, reaching the second floor of many buildings.

Ironton City Council also passed an ordinance in 2018 that created a monthly $5 flood protection fee tacked onto utility bills. That revenue goes into a Flood Improvement Fund that had a little more than $200,000 as of late November, according to the city’s finance director. Ironton’s per capita income is about $20,000 and the city’s poverty rate hovers at 20%, but the city didn’t have many other options.

“To nobody’s knowledge was there anywhere, any kind of money available to go after that would meet the kind of needs, and there was an immediate need,” said Jim Tordiff, the former Ironton councilman who drafted the ordinance. “It had gone on too long and couldn’t be ignored.”

But Pemberton said even with the extra local funding, the glaring, long-term problems still pile up.

Pump Station Five, directly along the banks of the Ohio, is the first station that’s turned on when high waters hit Ironton. Pump engines have caught fire over the decades and, a few years ago, Pemberton said, the electrical switchgear controlling the station’s pumps also went up in flames. He said his department was only able to afford the $198,000 switchgear repair cost because of a city insurance payment.

But he can’t rely on insurance for the future, he said, as all of his stations have the same outdated switchgears that could fail. He estimates each station would cost around the same amount to receive an upgrade — money he and other Ohio River communities in similar situations struggle to find.

“You can imagine the maintenance and repairs and the parts and pieces that it would take and the cost it would take to keep a 1940 car on the road today,” said Sherry Wilkins, director of the Huntington Stormwater Utility. “That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here, we’re dealing with an 80-year-old system.”

Wilkins said Huntington encounters a lot of the type of problems with an aging system that Pemberton described in Ironton.

Liam Niemeyer

Stan Wonnell (left), floodwall coordinator for the Huntington Stormwater Utility, and Sherry Wilkins, director of the utility.

The flood defense employees she manages often have to hunt across the country for pump station replacement parts, like leather straps or metal brackets, or pay extra to get custom parts made, simply because the parts for the World War II-era equipment aren’t manufactured anymore.

“Our floodwall has a 50-year design life,” Wilkins said, meaning that obscure replacement parts must be custom-made and can cost thousands of dollars. “The average person wouldn’t think of that, ‘Wow, does it really cost $20,000 to repair a pump?’ So, currently we don’t have the money to do those kinds of things continually.”

Wilkins said grant funding is tight because of competition with dozens of other municipalities in need. And in older cities, other aging infrastructure issues may be a higher priority when it comes to applying for grants.

If there were a flood that damaged Huntington’s downtown floodwall, the Corps of Engineers would not help the city pay for repairs.

The federal government fully funds repairs to a system after a disaster through the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program, but only if the system meets basic inspection requirements. The Corps of Engineers inspects flood defense systems annually on physical flaws and administrative practices, such as whether cities practice routine floodwall gate closures.

If the inspection is considered at least “minimally acceptable,” the Corps will cover damage from a disaster.

The reason Huntington’s downtown floodwall does not qualify? A sinkhole, almost the size of a car, threatens to swallow up ground near the city’s 11th Street Pump Station.

“It’s not just Huntington, it’s every single floodwall that was built in the 1930s, 1940s. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” Wilkins said. “It’s a problem nationwide.”

With scientists predicting warmer temperatures and more frequent flooding due to climate change, the urgency is growing to address aging infrastructure.

Warmer, Wetter Future

Huntington as warm as Los Angeles. Cincinnati as hot as Atlanta: Those are just some of the predicted temperature rises in the Ohio River basin in the coming century, according to a 2017 report studying the effects of climate change. The Army Corps, the National Weather Service, regional universities and other federal and state partners worked on the study.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Jim Noel is a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center and one of the authors of the study. He said the higher temperatures predicted in the study tend to increase the amount of water evaporation, which not only could mean more rainfall but also increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts throughout the basin.

Already, several cities in the region saw record rainfall in 2018. Cincinnati saw its third wettest year, and Charleston, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Louisville all saw their wettest year ever.

Some levee systems in parts of the Ohio River basin — including Huntington and Ironton —  could see an average annual river streamflow increase of 25% to 35% by 2099. That increases the chance of another flood on the scale of the historic one in 1937.

Noel said the Ohio River basin today has several extra protections beyond the floodwalls and levees, such as dams and reservoirs along tributary rivers, that help control water levels before they reach levee systems.

“The 1937 flood happened before most of the flood control projects in the Ohio basin,” Noel said. “Therefore, for example, like if you look at Cincinnati, Ohio, or Louisville, Kentucky, those kind of cities, if 1937 were to exactly repeat itself, the crest on the Ohio River would be some 8 to 10 feet lower in many locations because of the great ability of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate that flow in that water through their flood control projects.”

And the height of some older floodwalls and levees could already be capable of handling higher waters, according to Kate White who led the 2017 Corps study.

Margaret Bourke-White photographed flood victims in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting relief supplies — an iconic image of the 1937 Ohio River flood.

White said levee projects created in the 1940s often estimated how high to build their levees using what’s called the freeboard method. Past engineers would calculate how high potential floods could be from historical records and then add a few feet on top of that height as a buffer. While newer levees have a more modern analysis for calculating the right flood protection height, she said the old method still offers relatively robust protection.

“I just think there are older things that are still perfectly fine if they’ve been maintained and looked after,” White said.

Flood protection managers including Pemberton, Wilkins and others along the Ohio River generally agree that stationary floodwalls and earthen levees are relatively solid compared to the moving parts of pump station equipment.

Army Corps Huntington District Levee Safety Program Manager John Ferguson said he expects all the levee systems in the upper Ohio Valley to perform as expected. But the increasing age is still a question.

“Maybe the general consensus on most of these projects is a 50-year design life, but again, that’s not a hard or fast rule that really means anything,” Ferguson said. “And yes, that just proves that it’s aging infrastructure like everything else in the country. We just got to take care of it and make sure we maintain it.”

Army Corps officials like Ferguson are relying on a system called Levee Safety Action Classification to help prioritize which aging levee systems carry more risk. A levee gets a risk classification based on its condition and the people and property it protects.

Twelve levee systems in the Ohio River basin have a “high” risk classification, including in Huntington, Louisville and systems protecting cities as small as Brookport, Illinois. This classification calls on officials to increase the “frequency of levee monitoring” and ensure the “community is aware of flood warning and evacuation procedures.”

The risk surrounding aging levees was a prominent topic at a Huntington meeting in November among several local levee project managers. Corps officials, including Ferguson, recommended that managers join forces to be a louder voice for federal funding.

“It’s a completely different story if you have every project, from Parkersburg to Maysville, that raises their hand and says, ‘Hey, we’ve got aging infrastructure,’” Ferguson said. “If there’s a lot of ‘squeaky wheels,’ it gets a lot of grease.”

Pemberton in Ironton said there was once an association of regional floodwall managers who advocated for infrastructure improvements, but that group dissolved in the early 2000s. He isn’t sure what future flooding from climate change will look like, but he said he believes banding flood defense managers together will help alleviate some of the uncertainty.

And when Pemberton hears about climate change from local meteorologists, the nagging worries he has for the future only continue to dog him.

“‘What if’ I guess [are] the two big words. ‘What if?’”

Liam Niemeyer, a reporter for Ohio Valley ReSource, authored this story. He can be reached at lniemeyer1@murraystate.edu.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

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