CHARLESTON — Just a fraction of a complex 2004 flood protection plan is still being adhered to in West Virginia, leaving residents vulnerable as flooding incidents increase across the state.
As local communities work to find solutions, state lawmakers heard the results of a May flood symposium held in Charleston, where dozens met to discuss how the plan should be updated to more effectively address flooding.
While state lawmakers listened to presentations, Huntington and Cabell County leaders worked to clear out a problematic creek on the southern border of the city limits to ease the effect of the next flooding event.
In disclosing May’s symposium results to the West Virginia Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding on Sunday, Mathew Sanders, a senior manager for The Pew Charitable Trust’s flood-prepared communities initiative, said Huntington’s struggles are not unique.
Sanders said the state needs to educate and engage with the public on root causes and solutions to flooding, while also fortifying at-risk critical facilities, strategically acquiring property for stormwater detention and retention, enforcing ordinances and codes, maximizing natural solutions and identifying specific funding sources.
Pew has been working with the state’s Resiliency Office, along with 15 other states, to develop statewide comprehensive resilience and adaptation plans.
Sanders said a lot of other states are trying to address flooding like West Virginia, and exchanging information among the group prevents “trying to reinvent the wheel” when another state might already have answers to the problem. The goal is to look toward future flood mitigation in West Virginia.
“One of the things that really led us to take a deeper dive in West Virginia is that (it) is one of, if not the most, flood-prone state in the United States,” Sanders said.
Leaders met in mid-May to review and provide feedback on West Virginia’s current flood protection plan, established in 2004. Sanders said they also wanted to develop a common understanding of the future flood risk.
State Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, said he learned a lot during the two-day symposium and has a better understanding of the issue.
“I was gratified to hear how much good information is here right before us right now,” he said, “and how well structured I think we can do our planning and make good decisions on the cost-versus-benefit ratio.”
Sanders said the 2004 plan is a robust plan with 12 recommendations, six goals, 34 objectives and more than 140 individual action items. Sanders said State Resiliency Office Deputy Director Ed Martin told the group that 14% of the recommendations in the plan had been acted on up to 2022.
“It wasn’t prioritized in such a way that it seemed accessible, at least to the people that reported back on it, in the context of the event,” he said.
The work group in Huntington was ignited by May 6 flooding in the Fourpole Creek Watershed area, but also followed other flooding events in recent years.
The City of Huntington’s Public Works Department, Huntington Water Quality Board and Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District were seen this week removing debris from Fourpole Creek, starting Tuesday at the 5th Street Bridge and moving west in the following days.
In attempting to evaluate the creek, mainly via drone footage, ahead of the physical work, city officials said there are parts inaccessible due to being private property or heavy vegetation. For now, the focus is on what the team can do.
City spokesperson Bryan Chambers said the crew cleared six debris locations Tuesday, the start of a daunting months-long task.
“There are areas that are going to be fairly easy to access because it’s easy to get to the creek bank and get heavy equipment down into the creek,” he said. “There are other locations along the creek, like Enslow Park, where there are heavy debris points that are going to require specialized equipment.”
The city is seeking companies to take on that work, Chambers said.
“We will be working to address every possible area, but there are areas — predominantly west of Harveytown and to the confluence — that have a lot of heavy vegetation,” he said. “We are going to have to wait until later this year to access that area.”
Working locally to find solutions isn’t enough, Sanders warned.
Days after Huntington’s May 6 flooding, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams spoke at the symposium to articulate the city’s struggles with the watershed, which extends well above city limits, but flows through Huntington’s Southside and West End before emptying into the Ohio River.
“One of the things that we really talked about in that context was the idea that, you know, some of the source points of the flooding that you’re experiencing and some of your communities are outside of the direct control of the jurisdiction ultimately impacted by the flooding,” Sanders said.
From the discussions, key information for an updated flood protection plan was gathered.
Sanders said they found there aren’t agencies in place to adequately regulate the flood plain. Local governments are taking on a number of flood-related roles that they are not able to devote time, attention or resources to in order to make sure the flood plain is being appropriately managed.
While there are a lot of people broadly working on the problem, there isn’t understanding as to who is doing what and with whom responsibilities lie regarding long-term activity.
“Local communities just don’t have the expertise and the capacity they need to adequately understand their flood risks and then parlay that into applications for projects and for funding to alleviate those risks,” he said.
Sanders said West Virginia has done great work on data collection and information delivery, pointing to the West Virginia flood tool and other mechanisms being used to chart out geographic flood-prone areas. However, he said the public doesn’t have an understanding of data the state has access to.
Stakeholders are using mapping data from assessors’ offices and other sources to try to predict where the most flood-prone areas are going to be. Data shows that the highest concentration of flood risks are in “less resourced” communities, Sanders said.
The state needs to do more outreach and engagement to help the public understand flooding will continue to get worse, he said.
Sanders said discussions were held at the symposium about West Virginia’s history of acquiring properties that are prohibitively flood-prone, and said participants indicated there could be opportunity to retrofit those properties so they can detain water when flooding occurs. He encouraged the leadership to investigate that idea.
Sanders said the primary consideration of the plan’s update should be natural solutions and natural stream restoration, with the goal of helping watersheds function so they don’t build up and cause more flooding.
Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, primarily covering Marshall University. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.
ASHLAND — A piece of history is docked at the Port of Ashland, and the community is invited to tour it this weekend.
The LST-325, or Landing Ship Tank 325, is the last fully operational landing ship tank in existence, and tours are offered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sunday, Sept. 18, for visitors to explore the 80-year-old vessel.
Cruise Director Ken Rupp said he hopes visitors can envision what life may have been like for those who served on the ship during World War II and other missions.
“I hope they take away appreciation for what their grandfathers and fathers did during the war,” Rupp said. “It’s just history, and we’re trying to bring it to life for everybody.”
Rupp said the 328-foot-long and 50-foot-wide ship was used for trips from the United States to Algeria, Sicily, England and more. First launched in October 1942, the ship transported people, fuel, weapons and other resources around the world.
The LST-325 spent its last 35 years of service in Greece, and served in the Greek Navy until December 1999. In 2000, the ship traveled back across the Atlantic Ocean to Mobile, Alabama. LST-325 typically stays in Evansville, Indiana, but travels and serves as a museum for different cities to enjoy.
Visitors will see guns and ammunition used on the ship, where the sailors and soldiers slept, the captain’s office and more during the tour.
Students from Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland visited the ship Thursday. Many students said they enjoyed learning about the ship’s history, and they got to see how young adults used to live and work while onboard.
“It was very interesting seeing how they were living when they were on the ship,” said 11-year-old Faith Brown. “They were only 17 or so when they were on it, so it was probably really hard living like that.”
Some students from Rose Hill Christian said their favorite part of the experience was learning about how guns used in the past were operated and how machinery was used to control the ship.
Others said they enjoyed re-enacting a famous movie scene.
“My favorite part was probably when we were all on the top deck because everybody started doing the Jack and Rose scene from ‘Titanic,’ and that was really cool and really fun,” said 11-year-old Sophie Davis.
Jason and Leigh Ann Martin brought their three children, Mariah, Colton and Auston, to check out the LST-325.
The family said they enjoyed being able to tour the different parts of the ship, and when asked why they decided to visit the LST-325, Jason Martin said they appreciated being able to explore a ship from a historical time period they did not get to experience.
“This was just to let them see a piece of history from something that probably won’t happen again,” he said.
After Sunday, the LST-325 will continue to Charleston, where it will open to the community Sept. 21. Tours cost $10 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 6-17 and are free to World War II and Korean War veterans, active service members and first responders with identification.
Sarah Ingram is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering public K-12 education. Follow her on Twitter @SIngramHD.
CHARLESTON — State health leaders are seeing signs of new life in the emergency medical services industry after a push to address worker shortages.
The “EMS WV: Answer the Call” program was launched in June and backed with $10 million from CARES Act funds to pay for strategic initiatives that aim to bolster the state’s EMS workforce and better equip communities to care for West Virginians.
The strategy includes investments in mobile ambulance simulators for educational programs in rural West Virginia; no-cost EMT training; training in the area of mental health, EMS leadership and geriatric EMS; medic packs for every EMS worker; and investments to keep behavioral health providers in rural communities to limit the burden on EMS transportation.
The program does not address the pay rate for a field in which workers are earning less in West Virginia than in surrounding states.
In updating the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services on the progress of the program, Dr. Cynthia Persily, vice chancellor of Health Sciences with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said there are signs the program is working.
A survey of current EMS personnel is being reviewed. The survey was done to gain information directly from the workforce about their demographics, employment status, health, workplace satisfaction and plans for retirement.
Emailed to 4,400 registered EMTs and paramedics in West Virginia, 2,044 workers — 46.5% — responded. About 1,043 of the responses were usable, Persily said, a 33% response rate. EMS agencies were also surveyed, of which 158 of 231 agencies responded, about 68% of the departments.
Persily said they found the EMS workforce has a mean age in the early 40s. Close to 350 of the respondents said they would retire within the next five years. The EMTs are averaging $10-$15 hourly salaries, while paramedics average $20-$25.
As of July 30, the EMS agencies reported about 232 vacant EMT positions.
Jody Ratliff, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, said from 2011 to 2016, EMS lost about 11,000 certified workers. Currently the state has 1,645 EMTs and 1,079 medics working in the field.
“What we don’t want to see is that mass exodus again without getting new people into EMS and retaining people in the EMS,” he said.
Persily said there is hope. There have been more than 500 people who have been trained, or are currently being trained, as EMTs at 34 sites through the Answer the Call program. She expects that number could double as data flows in from EMS agencies.
“We can easily answer the need if all of those people enter the workforce,” she said.
Persily said an uphill battle now is to make sure the graduates are ready for testing, because there is not a great pass rate percentage on testing. To help with that, an EMS-specific test readiness program has been purchased.
Persily did not have the EMS exam passage rates from May’s graduating class.
While he believes the initiative is working, Ratliff said the office has not seen the results yet, as they have only received 188 new applications since March 31.
“We won’t see the true success of that for a little bit longer, until we actually see better numbers coming through from the applications that come through and people who actually get certified come through,” he said.
There are also 208 people expected to graduate in May 2023 from paramedic programs at state community and technical colleges. Last year, there were 168.
Persily said while there are enough paramedics in training to meet the demand, the graduation level needs to keep up to address future retirees.
The program has also been funding mental health, first-aid and other training programs, which have trained 246 people this summer.
The campaign is publicly visible through multimedia advertisements on television and streaming services, as well as billboards throughout the state. Information materials, bumper stickers and more have also been distributed to introduce people to EMS careers, especially those in middle and high school.
All the information brings the public to a centralized website, EMSWV.org, where those interested can be connected to EMT training programs near them. In the past month, there have been 10,000 users visiting the page, marking over 26,000 hits since its creation.
“So obviously there’s a lot of interest there. What we’re doing is driving a lot of interest to that website,” Persily said.
The campaign has also funded mobile ambulance simulators, which are ready to be dispatched after being unveiled Monday at the Capitol. The simulators will be deployed to five regions across the state at community and technical colleges, but can be used for any EMS training for those who want to use them.
The EMS leadership training program at the University of Charleston has also seen success, she said. About 300 students enrolled in the first course, with 250 moving into the second and third courses, showing an 83% retention rate, Persily said.
“Many of the participants are continuing the program, even though it is very demanding of their time, their personal and their professional time,” she said.
As a thank you for current EMS employees, the program purchased about 2,000 medic packs that will be distributed. The bags are stocked with equipment they may need as first responders when they aren’t near an ambulance.
The funding for the project needs to be spent by the end of the month, due to federal guidelines for CARES Act funds, and Persily said the office is in a “mad dash” to make sure invoices are completed by that time. Persily said the training will continue after the end of the month.
Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, said he has seen programs like this come and go in his 40 years of EMS service, but he is pleased with how it is being executed.
“I hope this time it will last, especially the mental health (aspect),” he said. “(That aspect) was needed so bad. I’ve seen so many people walk away after a really bad situation, and you couldn’t get anybody.”
Persily said mental health training remains a top priority.
Statler said Persily has exceeded any expectations he had when they met months ago to find solutions to problems the industry faces.
“It’s gonna need to continue long after this $10 million is used up, so we’ve got to work on how we can sustain this going into the future because it’s critical to the state,” he said. “There’s some very encouraging information that you have given us here, and I applaud you for that.”
Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, primarily covering Marshall University. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.
HUNTINGTON — Around 1,200 households have signed up for Huntington’s curbside recycling service, which is slated to begin in a little more than two weeks.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said during Monday’s City Council meeting the program was approaching 1,200 households last Friday. The city’s original target was 910 households. Earlier this year, the City Council approved a purchase agreement with Ohio-based company Rumpke for the curbside recycling service. The service will begin Saturday, Oct. 1. Registration opened in June.
Huntington residents who participate in curbside recycling will automatically get a $5-per-month credit on their residential refuse bills, Williams said.
Residents who sign up before Oct. 1 are eligible for a $10 discount on their recycling containers. To register, call 800-828-8171, ext. 8755, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and mention the “Huntington Recycles program.”
Rumpke will deliver containers next week, Williams said.
The Ohio company’s Ironton facility will organize local pickup for Huntington. After that, material is hauled to Rumpke’s Material Recovery Facility, which is near Cincinnati, for sorting. The facility serves West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. All of the material stays within the U.S., mostly in the Midwest, a Rumpke spokesperson previously said.
The curbside recycling service is single-stream, which means accepted items can go in the container together and do not have to be bagged. Accepted materials include cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs with lids, glass bottles and jars, metal cans and cups, and cartons.
McKenna Horsley is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering local government in Huntington and Cabell County. Follow her on Twitter @Mckennahorsley.