HUNTINGTON - Disaster experts from across the state and country say West Virginia did a good job on immediate and short-term disaster recovery efforts following the historic June 2016 floods, but there is still a lot of work to be done regarding long-term issues.
"The majority of funds are obtained and spent on short-term recovery," said Brock Long, former director of Alabama Emergency Management and member of the National Emergency Management Association. "We all need to bring more focus to long-term recovery efforts."
Long was one of many guest speakers Friday at the West Virginia Economic Recovery Summit, which was hosted by Marshall University and West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster at Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall on the university's Huntington campus.
"The goal of the West Virginia Economic Recovery Summit is to bring together national and local experts to discuss possible solutions for long-term recovery following the state's historic flooding in June 2016," said Jenny Gannaway, West Virginia VOAD executive director. "This is a great learning opportunity for our state. West Virginia VOAD believes that by bringing together a diverse group of speakers that represent the governmental sector, the nonprofit sector, the business sector and the higher education sector, we can develop a comprehensive and holistic approach to long-term recovery from the epic floods."
Between eight and 10 inches of rain fell in areas of West Virginia on Thursday, June 23, leading to the seventh deadliest flood in state history. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin estimated 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the flood that claimed the lives of 23 people. Tomblin declared a state of emergency in 44 of the state's 55 counties.
At Friday's day-long summit, a range of topics from different angles were discussed. One topic centered around increasing the recognition of the need for pre-impact action.
"We are working with communities on comprehensive plans to include identifying flood plain areas in regards to future land use," said Katherine Garvey, director of West Virginia University's Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic.
Most speakers agreed that rebuilding in flood-prone areas is a mistake.
"Most small communities do not have the funds to build floodwalls, so we want to help communities with redevelopment plans for future building and redevelopment outside of areas that are subject to flooding," Garvey said.
Some of the speakers shared their experiences dealing with major disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Gulf oil spill. All said future economic growth is one of the key components to long-term sustainability for the flood survivors in West Virginia.
"Some of the challenges and key economic recovery issues include economic diversity, lack of internet connectivity, limited access to capital, a business plan, a community's economic resiliency and infrastructure capacity," said Kevin Snyder, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 3, which includes West Virginia. "We have a long-term commitment to the recovery efforts here in West Virginia."
Ken Rathje, with FEMA Region 2 in New York, said New Jersey and New York are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. He estimated losses from the disaster to be about $40 billion for New Jersey and $42 billion for New York.
"Getting the right partners at the table, the better we can address recovery needs," he said.
Rathje said the sources of solutions can be government, philanthropic, the private sector and the entire community.
"Local community events, like today, are key to coordinated activities needed to develop joint solutions," he said.
The program included Tom Wooten, author of "We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina." Wooten spoke about university and community partnerships that took place in New Orleans, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina.
"Instead of just protesting the city and federal government ideas and plans, the neighborhoods came together to create resident committees for everything from housing to future economic development and long-term recovery," he said. "Residents worked with university students to find answers to questions, solutions and develop recovery plans. They learned it was about not showing what you want, but rather showing how you are going to do it."
Other guest speakers included Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert; Gov.-elect Jim Justice; Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, West Virginia adjutant general; and Jimmy Gianato, the state's director of Homeland Security.
"I want to thank everyone in this room for their contributions to the recovery efforts in West Virginia," Justice said. "West Virginia is bouncing back. Our state is just too good to be kept down by a 1,000-year flood, and you can see that every day as neighbors help one another rebuild their lives. We must never forget this tragedy, and we must use it to learn how we can improve upon our disaster response. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank all the organizations who rolled up their sleeves to help West Virginia families and local businesses impacted by the flood."
Hoyer, a key leader in the state's long-term flood recovery efforts, thanked Marshall University, VOAD and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for their work in bringing the summit together.
"The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has a model that the state of Louisiana uses that we can use in West Virginia," said Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, COO of the Disaster Services Division of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Alexandria, Virginia. "They brought together foundations, corporations, volunteer organizations and health care centers to form an advisory group that will work long term in Louisiana's disaster recovery."
Hoyer said the statistics showed that most of the victims of the June 2016 flooding in West Virginia were moderate to low income and elderly.
"They were already struggling, and the flooding just exacerbated the problem," he said.
Hoyer said the state must continue to learn from its disasters and continue to develop better pre- and post-disaster strategies and solutions.
"Our state continues to rebuild our communities for future success and growth, which will require us to look to the future with vision and innovation," Hoyer said.
Hoyer said it's not if another disaster would happen, but rather when it would happen.
"It's going to happen again, so we can do more with long-term recovery if we focus on economic development and diversity now," he said.
In addition to Marshall and West Virginia VOAD, sponsors of Friday's summit include Neighbors Loving Neighbors, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, St. Vincent de Paul Disaster Services USA and the advisory board of Marshall's Lewis College of Business.
"We are delighted at Marshall to be able to host this prestigious group that is discussing planning for both short- and long-term recovery from disasters and the role higher education can play," said Gilbert. "This is going to be an asset moving forward for West Virginia to have people knowledgeable and trained to create a sustainable community following a disaster."
Gilbert said some of his goals for Marshall over the coming years involve expanding its community outreach efforts.
"We want to play a role in helping to set priorities for economic development in West Virginia," he said. "Our Lewis College of Business naturally will be key to helping promote entrepreneurship and interfacing with West Virginia businesses as we all work together to help the state grow."
A second Economic Recovery Summit is being planned for the spring at West Virginia University.
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