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West Virginia: The state most vulnerable to flood disasters?  

WVSOM involved in National Science Foundation grant for West Virginia flood preparedness

WV Press Association

LEWISBURG, W.Va. — As West Virginians prepare for 2024, an official at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) wants to be sure citizens and state officials are aware of the need to prepare for flooding.

 “By some measures, West Virginia is the state most vulnerable to flood disaster. We have plenty of rain, and we have steep mountains and rivers and creeks. We have beautiful topography we love, that also happens to make our communities vulnerable. It’s important to let people know about their risk so that they can prepare before a flood happens and better deal with it after it happens,” said Julian Levine, CRCH director of community outreach. “Research shows that floods will continue to happen, but we can change how damaging they are.”

Levine and WVSOM are participating in a yearlong project to help West Virginia’s communities become better prepared to recover from floods. The school’s Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) is one of several collaborators on a $787,594 grant the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Environmental Science and Forestry Campus.

Through the project, Levine and the CRCH will help create the West Virginia Flood Resilience Framework, a resource to support residents, local leaders, nonprofit organizations and state officials in increasing communities’ flood resilience.

It’s essential that West Virginians be prepared for flooding, Levine said, citing Federal Emergency Management Agency data stating that 99 percent of U.S. counties experienced at least one flood between 1996 and 2019.

James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., WVSOM’s president, said while WVSOM is better known as the state’s largest medical school, research is a key element of the work being done on campus and through the CRCH. He said the school’s work on the West Virginia Flood Resilience Framework will help strengthen the state’s response to natural disasters.

Nemitz, James, Ph.D., President WVSOM

Having been at WVSOM for 38 years, Nemitz has seen the flooding in West Virginia and knows the impact.

“Floods have been devastating to our region, and I am encouraged that through this project we will be better prepared for future catastrophic events. I applaud the work of so many to address this threat to the well-being of our communities,” Nemitz said.

For Levine, it was while working on flood relief throughout Greenbrier County as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2016 that he saw firsthand the devastation caused by the deluge. He said the experience eventually brought him to the attention of Shinn, a West Virginia University geographer who was researching the flood experience in the county. When Shinn later took a position at the State University of New York, the Civic Innovation Challenge grant followed her.

Levine will help create and implement a statewide survey of West Virginia residents regarding the impact of floods. He also will assist with project management and connecting communities to the initiative.

“We’re going to use the survey to assess how well West Virginia residents have recovered from previous floods and how prepared they are for future floods,” Levine said. “Then we’ll work with communities to develop visualizations and methods of understanding risk, and ultimately create an online tool that’s accessible to anyone in the state to improve their knowledge of flood risk, floodplain management and disaster preparation.”

The project represents the second phase of an NSF Civic Innovation Challenge grant, the result of a research and action competition focused on transitioning emerging technologies and concepts into community actions to address longstanding challenges. Levine and other co-investigators, led by primary investigator Jamie Shinn, Ph.D., at SUNY, were selected for the second-phase grant after completing its first phase, which examined lessons learned from the flood that damaged portions of West Virginia in 2016, looking specifically at its effects in Greenbrier County.

Levine said the grant represents a unique opportunity from the NSF, a federal agency that supports research and education in the fields of science and engineering.

“A lot of what the National Science Foundation does tends to be hard science. This is an attempt to do something more community-focused, to bring together academic expertise, civic organizations and people at the community level to create useful tools that can be implemented quickly. We should celebrate that,” he said.

Work funded by the grant is expected to be completed by September 2024.

Other collaborators on the project include West Virginia University and its Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic; the West Virginia Geographic Information Systems Technical Center; the West Virginia State Resiliency Office; West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster; the Meadow River Valley Association; and the Greenbrier County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.