Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 5, 2013

Planning ahead is best safeguard for disasters

PRINCETON — Floods have been a bane for many communities in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, but dredging creeks and taking other measures have reduced future chances for damage and displacement.

Flooding was once a serious problem in downtown Bluefield, Va., whenever heavy rain fell on the region. Mayor Don Harris remembered instances during the last 50 to 60 years when high waters covered the town’s streets. The problem centered on the creek flowing near the old town hall.

“Basically, the channel the water flows through was too narrow, and there were buildings over the channel,” Harris recalled. “That restricted the flow.”

Water would collect in the present vicinity of Classic Coal Sales, and then migrate to the downtown. To address the problem, Bluefield, Va., moved its town hall about 10 years ago and turned the old site into a park.

“Of course, we went through the mitigation, tore down the buildings, and basically we opened the channel for water to flow more freely,” Harris said. “Though the water has gotten very high, none of our businesses have been flooded since then. In the past, there were a lot of mistakes in allowing businesses to be built over the channel, and thereby restricting the water’s flow.”

Now U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations prohibit the building of any structures in the flood way that would inhibit the water, Harris said. The town’s farmers market is in that area, but it would not block the creek or suffer any significant damage in the water rose over it. FEMA funded the mitigation project.

Other communities have taken measures to reduce the chances for flooding. In the town of Matoaka in neighboring Mercer County, the sediment was recently removed from the stream running through the town, said Mayor Todd Colonna. In the past, the town has had serious flood problems.

“The whole idea is to get it (water) past the town,” Colonna said. “Get it past the town and into the lowland areas so we won’t have the same issues.”

“The river area looks much lower. We haven’t had a huge rain to gauge where we stand, but so far it looks like it helped a lot,” he said.

The project was funded by an $80,000 grant from the Hugh I. Shott Jr. Foundation.

High water has been a continuing problem along Princeton’s Stafford Drive. Intersections such as Bee Street and Stafford Drive are often submerged when heavy rain falls. Princeton has been seeking a state Small Cities Block Grant to pay for renovating Stafford Drive’s drainage system. The Hugh I. Shott Jr. Foundation has contributed $250,000 to help alleviate the high water problem, said City Manager Elke Doom.

“I think the best lesson that’s been learned is that there’s a reason why we’re not allowed to build in wetland areas,” Doom said. When wetlands are filled in to keep water away from property, it creates new issues.

The high-water problem around Stafford Drive has improved from what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Doom said she has spoken with senior Princeton residents who remember the Stafford Drive area staying flooded for an entire season after a rainstorm; in contrast, high water now recedes in a few hours. The city is still working to get the money needed to address today’s drainage problems.

“We’re still hopeful we will have the attention of our leaders in Charleston and that they will recognize how very important this is and grant us the money,” Doom said.

Part of the Shott Foundation grant will pay for a detailed inspection of the current drainage system, she said. Many of the pipes — possibly made of clay — could have collapsed or gotten clogged with tree roots.

“It’s a long-term solution. I wish I could say we would have it done a few months,” Doom said.

More communities are working to reduce the chances for disasters, but individuals are being urged to prepare for disasters, too. The number of households that are unprepared for even short-term independence became clear in July 2012 when a major windstorm left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. Some homes had to wait a week or more for power to be restored.

Craig Hammond, director of the Bluefield Union Mission, said the majority of people the mission and houses of worship aided after the storm did not have any food, water or equipment on hand for even short-term existence.

“Over 80 percent of the people we assisted with fans, water and food supplies had the means and the ability to be prepared, but they were not. That’s an eye-popping number,” Hammond said.

Experience shows that the first 72 hours after a storm or other disaster has struck are the most challenging, he said.

“When you look at all the disasters over the last 25 years, the average interruption of services is 72 hours,” Hammond stated. “That’s three days. Have shelf-stable food, flashlights, water, a battery-powered radio, and you’ll be amazed how you can survive for 72 hours. That frees up rescue agencies so they can go to where people can’t prepare like that.”

Most shelf-stable food is good for 18 months, so disaster preparation does not require a lot of resources, Hammond said. Owners just have to “rotate it out” to keep supplies on hand.

The Bluefield Ministerial Association has scheduled a special meeting for May 29 to discuss ways to promote being prepared for disasters.

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