After Hurley and Whitewood floods, Virginia considers state relief fund

By: - September 20, 2023 12:04 am

An underpass in Big Rock, Buchanan County, on Aug. 31, 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Over the past two years, two major deluges in the towns of Hurley and Whitewood in Southwest Virginia have caused catastrophic flooding that left dozens of homes destroyed and one woman dead. 

But as the communities have struggled to rebuild, federal relief has been limited. In response, state legislators have dipped into state funds earmarked for other purposes to help with recovery.

The main source of that funding is the state’s proceeds from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative auctions, which Virginia law dictates must go to flood preparedness and energy efficiency programs. The diversion of nearly $30 million of those funds to post-disaster relief has put a spotlight on Virginia’s lack of a system to assist individuals recovering from storm damage. 

Shawn Talmadge, state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said while the reallocation of RGGI revenues is a way to fill a gap for people impacted by the storms, there is a desire among policymakers for a dedicated state program that could provide individual assistance without waiting on the lengthy budget amendment process. Talmadge said the goal is to have a program created by legislation during the 2025 General Assembly session.

“We’re taking a look at having a standing program ready to go that would allow us to, in a much more timely fashion, begin that support to our residents,” said Talmadge.  “It’s just so complicated, we need to benchmark against other states. We’re surveying other states to see what they’ve got and then see what’s best for the commonwealth of Virginia.”

The idea has been floated before. In 2022, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, introduced a bill that would have regularly redirected 5% of RGGI revenues to a permanent Flood Relief Fund that could issue recovery payments to owners of property damaged by a flood, landslide or mudslide that had been declared a major disaster by the president. Morefield later pulled the bill and instead submitted a one-time $11.4 million budget amendment to create the Hurley Relief Fund. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

But with Gov. Glenn Youngkin moving to pull Virginia out of RGGI, that source of funding may soon disappear. And emergency planners say they are seeing increased demand for storm response and recovery.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a 91% increase in state and local level disasters in the past decade, as compared to the previous decade,” Talmadge said. “It just demands that our organization is in a constant state of vigilance preparing, planning, coordinating with our localities, and really preparing for everything.” 

The Hurley and Whitewood floods

Appalachian communities are particularly susceptible to damaging floods because the mountainous terrain traps intense rainfall in lower-lying inhabited hollows, where it has nowhere to go but up. 

Specific rain gauge reports are sparse in the area, said Gabe Wawrin, a meteorologist for the Charleston, West Virginia office of the National Weather Service, but radar estimates show that about four to six inches of rain fell during a roughly nine-hour period on Aug. 30, 2021, leading to the Hurley flooding.

According to VDEM figures, the storm destroyed 31 homes and left 27 with major damage and eight with minor damage. Video footage from TV station WHSV shows homes moved to the sides of roadways and piles of wooden debris.

“What we’re looking at is approximately 20 homes that were completely destroyed,” Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Eric Breeding told the station. “When I say completely destroyed, I mean they’re no longer there. They’re gone off the foundation.” 

In the July 12-13, 2022 Whitewood flood, upwards of an estimated four to six inches of rain fell, Wawrin said. VDEM totaled 37 homes destroyed, with an additional 39 suffering from major damage and 24 having minor damage. Forty-four people were initially reported missing, but were later found.

Types of funding assistance

Buchanan County did receive some funding from both the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the local government’s recovery expenses, as well as funding from FEMA for projects to prevent damage in the future. However, assistance to individual residents impacted by the floods has been limited or nonexistent.

“Public assistance” funds go toward helping localities cover the costs of responding to disasters, such as deploying fire trucks and personnel and repairing infrastructure like damaged roads and wastewater pipes.

In response to the Hurley flood, Virginia awarded $868,619 in public assistance funds to Buchanan County, while FEMA issued $2.6 million to help the locality. For the Whitewood flood, Buchanan County got $836,689 from the state, while Tazewell, which lies just east of Whitewood, got $29,757. FEMA awarded $3.8 million to help the recovery in both counties.

Unfortunately, we've seen a 91% increase in state and local level disasters in the past decade, as compared to the previous decade.

– Shawn Talmadge, state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management

The federal government also funds projects to prevent future flood damage from being so devastating through a program called hazard mitigation. Virginia has applied for $2.5 million in hazard mitigation funds to cover the cost of acquiring and demolishing 34 structures in Buchanan County to turn a flood-prone area into open space. 

Talmadge said hazard mitigation money has a 6-to-1 return on investment compared to money spent on disaster cleanup.

“It’s basically removing the risk, the hazard,” said Robbie Coates, director of VDEM’s Grant Management and Recovery Division.

Where funding has fallen short has been individual assistance. FEMA can provide financial help to uninsured homeowners but denied requests for individual relief for the Hurley and Whitewood floods. And because Virginia has no permanent program for individual assistance, families and people impacted by the storms have been left without much help.

A preliminary damage assessment report shows Buchanan asked for $1.57 million in individual assistance for the Hurley flood and $1.9 million in individual assistance for the Whitewood flood. The state appealed the first denial for Hurley but was again rejected; it chose not to appeal the Whitewood denial.

In a statement provided to WJHL, FEMA said it denied assistance for the Hurley flood because it determined “the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of the Individual Assistance program.”

To fill the gap in individual assistance, Virginia is taking money from RGGI revenues and relying on one-time funding mechanisms: the Hurley Relief Fund Program and the Whitewood Relief Fund Program.

To date, the Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the funds, has received 110 applications for the $11.4 million Hurley Relief Fund Program and has approved 91 applications totaling $7.2 million in assistance. The Whitewood fund has been allocated $18 million.

The state also has a disaster relief fund that the public can donate to, but it has not used dollars from it for relief from these two storms, Coates said. 

“It is, by state code, a fund of last resort after all insurance, state, and federal funded programs are utilized and there are still unmet financial needs,” Coates said by email.

Permanently filling the gap

Looking forward, VDEM is beginning a 10-month study of how other states have developed individual assistance and hazard mitigation programs, including potential funding impacts. The agency intends to produce recommendations ahead of the 2025 legislative session.

Youngkin has said the Hurley Relief Fund has “given us a framework that will allow for relief funds to be delivered faster moving forward.” Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, similarly called the fund “a model initiative … that hopefully will assist victims of devastating flood disasters in the future.”

When asked about how critical it is for Virginia to have a disaster relief program for individuals, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said only that funds “need to be allocated through an appropriation process, not through a hidden tax,” referring to RGGI costs paid by utility customers.

Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, said the flood victims need support, but diverting RGGI funds is not the solution.

“This RGGI money is for helping low-income families across Virginia live in more energy-efficient housing, which helps reduce their energy burden,” Harnish said. “While the state should definitely help flood disaster victims, I question why that money did not come out of the general fund surplus instead?”

This story was updated with the correct number of applications DHCD has received for the Hurley Relief Fund Program.


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.