CHARLESTON — West Virginia faces disproportionately high flood risks with disproportionately little financial protection for its residents’ homes and possessions.
Less than 1.5% of roughly 673,000 residential structures across West Virginia had residential flood insurance contracts through a federal program providing most of the nation’s flood insurance in force as of May 16, according to federal data.
A recent change in the program’s pricing methodology is hitting West Virginia especially hard.
The program is the Federal Emergency Management Agency-managed National Flood Insurance Program, which provides flood insurance to property owners, renters and businesses. Flood insurance is sold apart from homeowners’ insurance policies.
FEMA has called the new methodology Risk Rating 2.0, instituting it last year to better reflect flood risk in premiums for more than 5 million policyholders nationwide.
But more accurate risk reflection has sent premiums rising in West Virginia, where narrow valleys, steep slopes and a high concentration of low-income communities make the state especially prone to flooding and troubled recoveries.
The flooding is poised to get more extreme as climate change worsens, portending a greater frequency of high waters like those that prompted Gov. Jim Justice to declare a state of emergency for Kanawha and Fayette counties last Monday.
“(I)n general, the greatest impact of flooding is often seen in low-income or underserved communities located in historically flood-prone areas,” Meg Galloway, senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said in an email.
Under the new methodology, FEMA has estimated premiums increasing for more than four out of every five policies in West Virginia, with 17.4% of policies decreasing.
West Virginia’s percentage of total policies estimated to fall is third-lowest in the country, above Texas and Mississippi.
Most of the premium increases are less than $20 a month, with about one in every 20 premiums in West Virginia increasing by more than that amount.
The increase in policy premiums in high-risk regions has resulted in calls for a means-tested assistance program that gives flood insurance discounts to eligible policyholders.
Under the National Flood Insurance Act, lenders must require borrowers whose property is located within a regulatory flood plain to buy flood insurance to receive a federally regulated mortgage loan.
But many West Virginians live near waterways that don’t have flood plains.
Nicolas Zegre, associate forest hydrology professor at West Virginia University, noted that West Virginians live near creeks, streams or small rivers, or on ridgetops or hillslopes above waterways without either a flood insurance policy or a requirement to get one.
Zegre noted that many of West Virginia’s floods are pluvial floods, in which rain falls faster than soil or drainage systems can absorb it.
“Pluvial floods can happen anywhere and arguably are (West Virginia’s) greatest hazard given our steep topography and shallow soils and more intense rain from a warming atmosphere,” Zegre said in an email.
West Virginia had just over 11,000 policies in force as of June 30 — a decrease of 17% from the previous year, according to an HD Media review of FEMA data.
The drop suggests that those insured are letting their policies expire rather than paying higher premiums, although it’s not clear how many have made the switch to private insurance. The less than 1.5% of residential structures in West Virginia that had flood insurance contracts was the 19th-highest clip in the country.
The trend could mean added vulnerability for West Virginians already shouldering a heavy flood risk burden.
“Under-resourced households and communities in (West Virginia) have high pre-hazard precarity, meaning that they are already starting, before disaster strikes, from a place where their capacity to absorb shocks and stresses is limited, assets are inadequate, and social protections are absent or failing,” Zegre said.
FEMA did not respond to requests for comment.
As of June 30, there were 1,744 policies in force in Kanawha County totaling approximately $293 million in coverage.
The average flood claim payout from the National Flood Insurance Program in 2019 was $52,000. The average annual insurance policy premium was $700.
A study released in October by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group that quantifies climate risk, found more than half of West Virginia’s critical infrastructure — including fire, police and power stations — is at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding. That was a higher share than in any other state.
But much of the mapping that designates the flood plains that determine where flood insurance requirements begin and end is outdated.
In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office found that FEMA needed to improve its management of flood map projects.
“Without accurate flood plain identification and mapping processes, management and oversight, FEMA cannot provide members of the public with a reliable rendering of their true flood vulnerability or ensure that (National Flood Insurance Program) rates reflect the real risk of flooding,” the office warned.
The inspector general’s office found that 42% of FEMA’s flood maps were assessed and up to date.
Zegre noted that with more extreme rain due to a warmer climate, a household that was once located outside a flood plain may be susceptible to flooding now.
But despite West Virginia’s high flood risks, it’s not one of 35 states that has enacted any legal or regulatory mechanism mandating that property sellers disclose factors related to flood risk about their property, according to a FEMA flood risk disclosure report issued last month. All states that border West Virginia at least require disclosure of whether a property is in a flood hazard area or FEMA flood zone, per the report.
State officials are updating West Virginia’s flood protection plan, which was last reworked in 2004.
Zegre noted that nature-based flood mitigation options include reforestation and bioswales, which are vegetated stormwater runoff conveyance systems that carry runoff from excessive rainfall to surface waters or to storm sewer inlets. Hard infrastructure upgrades, Zegre observed, could include culverts, dams and stormwater infrastructure upgrades.
“Our infrastructure was designed using last century’s weather, so it is not surprising that it is unable to handle the kind of storms we are experiencing,” Zegre said.
Charleston broke its summer all-time high record for rainfall with 23.13 inches as of Monday night, according to the National Weather Service.
Zegre is becoming less convinced that West Virginia can mitigate its way out of the climate crisis, especially given the state’s many remote areas with streams nearby people and infrastructure.
“Our first priority should be focused on community adaptation to floods,” Zegre said. “This not only requires preparation, response and recovery planning for individual households and communities with unique needs, but also the acceptance that extreme rain and floods are becoming more frequent due to human activities.”
West Virginia’s socioeconomic and topographic challenges leave it little margin for error — especially since it has little flood insurance to fall back on.
“(W)e need to look forward to prepare for today and the future,” Zegre said.