By: Yaron Miller
Last year, Virginia heralded a much-needed triumph to address increasing flooding across the state with the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) becoming law. The program was established to provide flood-prone communities with low-interest loans and grants that can be used to develop resilience plans that identify vulnerabilities and interventions, increase local technical capacity and expertise, and fund mitigation projects with a preference for those that use natural features to reduce flood damage. Following the recent selection of CFPF’s first-round grantees, communities will soon begin initiating projects.
Buchanan County to develop flood resilience plan
One of those is Buchanan County, which borders West Virginia and Kentucky and has suffered from riverine flooding for many years. The impacts of flooding on homes, businesses, critical facilities, and infrastructure are especially consequential for residents as the entire county is classified as having moderate to very high social vulnerability when it comes to recovering from natural hazards, according to the Adapt Virginia database, a state climate change information portal developed by state academic institutions. And as a lower-income area, the county has lacked the resources to comprehensively plan for and address its flood-related challenges.
With the help of First Earth 2030, an environmental management firm based in Richmond, Virginia, working with the county at no cost, county officials secured a $387,500 grant to develop a resilience plan that will engage community members to assess flood risk and identify ways to reduce it, including through nature-based projects. The county will also train a local official to become a certified floodplain manager. And once the state approves the resilience plan, the county will be able to apply for funding for shovel-ready mitigation projects.
“Our intention is to turn these planning dollars into project dollars,” said Charlie Westbrook, co-founder and principal of First Earth, during an October webinar hosted by the Norfolk-based conservation group Wetlands Watch. “Because, as you can see, [floods are] affecting general government services, they are affecting roadways, they are affecting people’s lives and well-being.”
In an email to Pew this month, Craig Horn, Buchanan County administrator and emergency services director, added, “In the past, we’ve had to wait for help” to recover from floods. “People lose their homes or roads get blocked and the money to help arrives long after. These new funds could help solve problems before they happen. It’ll make a real difference.”
Hampton moves to increase green infrastructure
In the Tidewater region, the city of Hampton received grants for several projects. One, the Honor Park Resilience Project ($147,994), will convert public space adjacent to City Hall into an innovative park that will collect, slow, and treat stormwater runoff while providing residents with a revitalized recreational area. Showcasing a range of nature-based resilience practices, the park will include constructed wetlands that absorb and treat stormwater, a dual-purpose amphitheater that can store excess runoff, and pervious pavers that can detain and slowly release water.
Another project, the Mill Point Living Shoreline ($126,498), will transform a 2,100-foot portion of armored waterfront along the Hampton River into a living shoreline to protect a neighborhood that the city has identified as low income. With replanted wetlands and a restored oyster reef, the riverbank will help reduce flood risk for residents by dissipating wave energy and preventing erosion, and will improve water quality in the river and the Chesapeake Bay.
“Downtown is one of Hampton’s most urban areas,” Carolyn Heaps, city of Hampton resiliency officer, told Pew over email this month. “With about 1,600 residents, it is a mix of homes, local and large businesses, and city government facilities. A significant portion is within mapped special flood hazard areas, including many residential properties.” Heaps added, “And, more than 60% of households in this part of the city earn less than its overall median income. Both of the design projects awarded to Hampton, the Mill Point Living Shoreline and the Honor Park Resilience Park, will invest in downtown’s local community by creating community-scale projects to address the current challenges of local flooding and future climate change conditions.”
Winchester to invest in stormwater management
The city of Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, was awarded $72,266 and will partner with an engineering consulting firm to develop a citywide flood resilience plan. Winchester’s stormwater infrastructure is insufficient to handle the more intense and frequent rains that deluge the city. At the heart of the resilience plan is a comprehensive strategy to upgrade stormwater management and maximize nature-based solutions to mitigate flooding.
“The city is excited to move forward with a resilience plan for our community,” Kelly B. Henshaw, city engineer of Winchester, said in an email exchange with Pew. “We have many examples of urban localized flooding throughout our city, causing detriment to our citizens and property owners, so we look forward to developing a plan that will help build a stronger and brighter future for the City of Winchester.”
These innovative projects from localities throughout the commonwealth are a testament to how far the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund has come since its inception—without any funding—in 2016. Now, this program is a critical resource that is helping localities reduce their disaster risk by investing in strategic planning and projects that harness the power of nature to combat flooding at the community scale. Local governments vying for the next round of grant awards can look to the projects and communities highlighted above for ideas and inspiration on creating a flood-resilient future for Virginians.
Yaron Miller manages the state policy and campaigns portfolio for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.