This week’s episode is the fifth and final installment of a multipart series called Climate Hits Home, in which guests discuss the effects of climate change on cities and towns across the United States and how local communities are addressing those effects. In this episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Nico Zegre, an associate professor at West Virginia University, about flooding in Appalachia. Zegre discusses the growing problem of floods in the area, including in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky; the unique vulnerability of local communities to this issue; and how local, state, and federal governments can mitigate flooding risks and impacts.
Listen to the Podcast
- Soils can’t keep up with heavy rainfall: “When a lot of rain falls quickly onto steep slopes, it overwhelms any potential storage from the soils—particularly the soil infiltration, but also the ability of infrastructure to attenuate that water. This, in turn, can result in flash floods … in West Virginia and throughout the Appalachian region, flash floods are responsible for most of the loss of life and economic damage.” (10:38)
- Certain communities are more vulnerable to the consequences of floods: “Flooding does not discriminate, but one’s ability to prepare, respond, recover, and cope is heavily influenced by social vulnerability. Even without storms and floods, West Virginians have a big challenge around food, water, energy, health, and economic security. This high social vulnerability means that West Virginians are already starting, before disaster strikes, with little capacity to absorb the shocks from any kind of a disaster. Our communities are experiencing stresses of a post-coal economic transition—on top of living in a state with a low tax base, inadequate social protections, and antiquated infrastructure.” (14:06)
- Collaboration to mitigate flood risks will work best if it involves the affected communities: “It has to be grassroots. It has to start with the communities, because they know what they need best. But communities themselves can’t do it without funding, so the state and federal governments play a really important role in that. But participation in the decisionmaking process has to be expanded to include communities that are most impacted by it.” (24:39)
Top of the Stack
- “You’re It!” by Wookiefoot
Margaret Walls: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Margaret Walls.
Today we are airing the final episode in our series we're calling Climate Hits Home, in which we describe how changing climate conditions are affecting communities across the United States and how those communities are addressing it.
In this episode, we’re going to have a discussion of flooding with a geographic focus on Appalachia. My guest is Nicolas Zegre. Nico is associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University, where he also directs the West Virginia Mountain Hydrology Lab. The lab focuses on all aspects of water resources, with an emphasis on the impacts and implications of environmental change and climate change on freshwater security, access, and environmental and social justice in mountain regions.
I connected with Nico last summer after the devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky, which killed 45 people. He was quoted heavily in the press after that event, and I’ve learned since then that he has extensive scientific expertise on the nature of flooding in the complex landscape of Appalachia, as well as experience working with communities on how to build resilience.
We’re going to talk with Nico about the growing number of extreme precipitation events in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia, how communities are being affected, and what some of the state and local approaches to dealing with the problem are. Stay with us.
Hello, Nico. Welcome to Resources Radio. Thanks for coming on the show.
Nico Zegre: Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
Margaret Walls: Before we dive in, I want to start by learning a little bit more about you, and how you came to do what you do. We always begin our podcast with this kind of get to know you question. So can you share with our audience a bit about yourself and your background, and how you came to work on flooding and other water resources issues in Appalachia?
Nico Zegre: I’ve always been drawn to water, and rivers have been pulling me toward them all my life. I really started seeing the world through a lens of water when I enlisted in the army straight out of high school with no plans of going to college. In the army, I was a chemical warfare specialist, and one of my jobs was to lay out decontamination plans to maintain operational readiness in the event of war. Water is the most important element during the decontamination process, so I was constantly trying to understand where fresh, safe, and reliable sources of water were. Since then, I’ve viewed the world through the lens of water—where it is, what it’s doing, how it works, and what it means for people and the environment. After my time in the army, I enrolled in the Forest Resources Management program at WVU (West Virginia University), where I teach now.
During that time, I became deeply connected to the state and became fascinated with how water connected the belowground with the atmosphere, and the critical role that forests played in regulating that process. My focus on flooding in Appalachia, specifically, is actually relatively recent. Following the devastating West Virginia floods in 2016, my postdoctoral researcher at the time, Rodrigo Fernandez, and I teamed up with two colleagues, Martina Caretta and Jamie Shinn, who were social scientists interviewing community members, first responders, and relief organizations that responded during the floods. Together as hydrologists and political ecologists and geographers, we started asking questions about what made these communities so vulnerable to floods. That led to questions like, what makes the Appalachians disproportionately vulnerable to flooding? And that work has continued with deeper questions about what’s being done to move the needle on flood vulnerability—who is doing it and how it's being done. What tools are available, and how can communities in West Virginia actually participate in the planning process?
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that’s great. And you didn’t even mention that you’re a kayaker. I happen to know that you are, so …
Nico Zegre: Yes. My love for water has coevolved with all aspects of my life.
Margaret Walls: That’s great. So, I hope people understand, but there are many different factors that are at play when it comes to flooding and the impacts of flooding. Heavy rainfall is typically one important contributing factor—but so is the landscape, the soil, the slope of the land, and a variety of other factors that contribute to whether we have a flood and how bad a flood is. Also, where people live matters for the extent of the impacts.
Can you take a few minutes and explain why the topography and the development patterns in Appalachia are so important to the extent of the flooding that occurs there, and the impacts of the cost of floods?
Nico Zegre: Sure. So, water is everywhere in West Virginia. We’re the 14th-wettest state from the perspective of precipitation. We’re the 10th-smallest state in the country by area, but we have around 54,000 miles of waterways, of which 85 percent are headwater creeks and small rivers, giving us one of the highest concentrations of rivers in the US. We’re also a headwater state and provide water to about 10 percent of the US population. So, we have a lot of water.
We’re also a very mountainous state. Of course, West Virginia is known as the Mountain State. We have complex topography. Our valleys are v-shaped: hill slopes are very steep, and soils are shallow, so water moves downslope and downstream very quickly. Given this complex topography, there’s very little naturally flat land for people to live on and for infrastructure to be built on, so most people live near water. Many of our roads and communities were literally cut into the sides of mountains by coal mining and timber companies, in order to access and extract natural resources but also to house the employees that made that extraction possible.
A lot of our buildings and infrastructure near floodplains are actually located on those floodplains. There are floodplains because of episodic flooding that deposited material that made the land relatively flat.
West Virginia is predominantly a forested state. More than 80 percent of the state is covered by trees. But we do have a long history of extraction, which has changed the relationship between the water and the forest and the earth. Disturbances from surface mining; oil and gas development; timber harvesting; industrialization; and, to a lesser extent, urbanization have significantly altered how water moves and how quickly, as well as water quality within the state.
Margaret Walls: Another factor is extreme precipitation events. So many regions of the US and elsewhere are experiencing a greater number of extreme precipitation events, and I believe that Appalachia is one of those regions.
I mentioned that eastern Kentucky flood last year, in July of 2022. Some locations had nearly nine inches of rain in a six-hour period. There was also that flood you mentioned in 2016, in your home state of West Virginia—I believe that was similar, with huge amounts of rainfall in a short period of time. Tell us a little bit about these extreme weather trends. Are they trends, actually?
Nico Zegre: Sure. Let me start by referencing the 2016 flood. About a quarter of West Virginia’s annual rainfall fell over the course of a couple of days during what became the 2016 floods. So, if the question is whether heavy rainfall is increasing, then the answer is, absolutely yes. As for the question about whether these are trends, it really depends on how you define and describe trends.
From a statistical perspective, finding trends in things like extreme rainfall and extreme events like flooding can be challenging. But just because a trend is not detected, it doesn’t mean that it’s not changing. And it certainly doesn’t mean that people aren’t being impacted by it. A recent study by Climate Central showed that, over the last three decades, heavy rainfall has indeed increased throughout the country, in the Desert Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast and the Northeast. They used hourly rainfall intensity, which was calculated by taking the total inches of annual rainfall divided by the total annual hours of rainfall. So, not a statistical approach.
But again, it showed that heavy rainfall, hourly rainfall, has been increasing. One of their study locations is actually here in West Virginia, in Huntington, which is the state’s second-largest city. In Huntington, since the 1970s, heavy rainfall has increased by about 28 percent. And Huntington, not unexpectedly, has been experiencing multiple floods each year over the past few years. This is consistent with the lived experience of residents throughout the state. If you ask the residents of Huntington if rainfall is changing, they will emphatically say yes. And that heavier and more frequent rainfall is indeed why their city keeps flooding each year.
And so trends, perhaps the lived-experience impact of more extreme and heavy rainfall? Absolutely.
Margaret Walls: Yeah. I spoke with some people in eastern Kentucky last year and saw the same thing—if you ask people, they’ll tell you, “Absolutely. We see more of these really big storms happening over short periods of time.” That’s interesting that that’s sort of a national phenomenon.
Why are these big precipitation events particularly problematic in Appalachian communities? I think you touched on this a little bit with the development patterns, but can you just say a little bit more about that?
Nico Zegre: Sure. Well, as many of us know, water flows downhill. So, gravity is an important thing. And when you have steep topographic gradients like we have here in West Virginia, dropping a lot of rain very quickly certainly poses problems. But from a mechanistic perspective, when a lot of rain falls quickly onto steep slopes, it overwhelms any potential storage from the soils—particularly the soil infiltration, but also the ability of infrastructure to attenuate that water. This, in turn, can result in flash floods, which are floods that move very quickly, on the order of minutes to hours. In West Virginia and throughout the Appalachian region, flash floods are responsible for most of the loss of life and economic damage. Going back to the floods in eastern Kentucky last summer, there are harrowing stories of how quickly the water rose, where people looked out their doors, saw that the water was rising, turned to get their car keys, and literally as they were walking out the door, they were inundated by water.
That’s how quickly these floods happen. Another important point is, with heavy rainfall and flash floods, you don’t need to live next to a stream or a river to be in harm’s way. They literally can happen anywhere on the landscape where heavy rainfall exceeds soil infiltration. And this is, in fact, what happened to me and my family in the summer of 2021, when my house flooded three times as a result of heavy rain. And I lived towards the top of a hill pretty far away from the creek, yet we sustained pretty significant damage in our house. Heavy rainfall can generate floods no matter where you are.
Margaret Walls: Wow. I knew you had told me that you flooded, but I didn’t know you were on the top of a hill and you still flooded.
Nico Zegre: Yeah.
Margaret Walls: We’re increasingly recognizing, I think, as a society, that certain populations are more vulnerable when it comes to floods and other disasters. We had an earlier episode in this podcast series on coastal flooding and sea level rise in Virginia. And I just have to quote, or paraphrase actually, what our guest Skip Stiles said when I asked this question about the cost of flooding or the impact, because it resonated with me. He said, “Everybody gets wet: Rich people get wet. Poor people get wet. The difference is, not everybody’s equally able to recover.” And that’s where you have a lot of inequities. So many communities in Appalachia and West Virginia, and other parts of Appalachia, the counties have lower median household incomes than the country as a whole—some higher poverty rates.
I know this because I looked it up, and the eastern Kentucky counties last year that were hit by the flood had very low rates of flood insurance take-up. And that makes recovery very difficult if you don’t have flood insurance.
So, you’ve worked in communities across West Virginia; you live there. Just talk about kind of the distribution of impacts that you see, and how the recovery process plays out. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Nico Zegre: Yes. And before doing that, I just want to situate us in kind of the flood landscape here in West Virginia. Between those fateful floods in 2016 and March ’22, there were over 1,600 floods in West Virginia. Every county of our 55 counties experienced a flood. A recent analysis by Chris Flavelle using the First Street Foundation data showed that more than half of West Virginia’s fire and police stations, 46 percent of our roads and 38 percent of our schools are at risk of flooding, meaning that West Virginia is actually tied for the greatest proportion of properties in the US that are vulnerable to flooding. The challenges are immense.
And continuing with that thread that you discussed with Skip Stiles about sea level rise, flooding does not discriminate. But one’s ability to prepare, respond, recover, and cope is heavily influenced by social vulnerability. Even without storms and floods, West Virginians have a big challenge around food, water, energy, health, and economic security.
This high social vulnerability means that West Virginians are already starting before disaster strikes with little capacity to absorb the shocks from any kind of a disaster. Plus, our communities are experiencing stresses of a post-coal economic transition—on top of living in a state with a low tax base, inadequate social protections, and antiquated infrastructure. So, extreme rainfall and flooding are an immense stressor on top of many existing stressors.
A big challenge is also the scale of destruction, which was evident in the eastern Kentucky floods, where roads and bridges were completely wiped out. So, response and recovery is challenged by that. But in the 2016 floods here in West Virginia, volunteer organizations like Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, or VOAD, and faith-based groups played a disproportionately large role in response and recovery. My colleagues Jamie and Martina found that the presence of volunteer groups and faith-based groups actually deepened the social capacity of the community, which is the ability of communities to act collectively in response to floods.
This actually increased hope for community revitalization. So, there is some positive amongst the despair. The title of their paper was a direct quote from a community member: “If it wasn’t for the faith-based groups, we wouldn’t be here today.” This really speaks to the importance of community cohesion and also diverse participation in planning, responding, and recovery, particularly in light of limited and insufficient services from the state and federal agencies.
But you mentioned flood insurance, and this is a big problem. A little over 1 percent of the 600,000 residential structures in West Virginia actually have flood insurance. Affordability is a big part, but so is education. People don’t necessarily know what flood insurance does, who needs it, or how it works. What they know is that it increases financial burden.
Plus, if I may, going back to these extreme rainfalls, floods can happen anywhere. The flood insurance mapping program uses the hundred-year floodplain as a basis for determining who should have flood insurance. And so, if you don’t live near a major river, you probably don’t think of having flood insurance.
Margaret Walls: Yeah. Can I ask you, did you have flood insurance when your house flooded three times?
Nico Zegre: No, and we still don’t. We’re going through the cost-benefit analysis to figure out whether we need that, or whether we invest in mitigation and adaptation on our property.
But, if I may finish the question with a point about the recovery process: Recovery is a really, really slow, slow process. It could take years for people to get back into their homes after a major flood, if they can get back at all. In 1985, West Virginia experienced what was called the Great Flood on the Cheat River and the Potomac River basins. Many communities impacted by the ’85 floods still have not recovered, and people are actually still living in FEMA trailers almost 40 years afterward. So it’s slow, complicated, expensive, and very challenging.
Margaret Walls: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I just read that they’re allowing Eastern Kentucky folks to, I think, purchase the FEMA trailers in Kentucky.
Let’s talk about some solutions. You’ve started to talk a little bit about a few things. But let’s start at the state level, because the governor of West Virginia signed a new flood resiliency law just in March of this year. Can you tell us what that law does?
Nico Zegre: Yes. So let me say that this replaces the previous flood plan that was published in 2004 and actually sat on the shelf until 2016. While the first flood plan did a pretty good job of outlining objectives, it was short on what could actually be done about the flood problem here in West Virginia. So, Senate Bill 677, the new law signed by Governor Justice, created the state flood resiliency plan and addresses many of the limitations. A couple of highlights are that it requires the State Resiliency Office (SRO), which was established following the 2016 floods, to submit a new flood resiliency plan for the state by this time next year and every two years after that. It also provides the SRO with the opportunity to employ the staff needed to fulfill the responsibilities of protecting communities from extreme events. Currently, the SRO only has three employees: a director, assistant director, and administration specialist.
A big takeaway from a review of the 2004 plan was a lack of funding to support planning, mitigation, and adaptation. The new bill actually includes two trust funds to meet this need. One is the West Virginia Flood Resiliency Trust Fund, and the other is the West Virginia Disaster Recovery Trust Fund. Both of these are designed to help in preparation planning, mitigation, as well as response and recovery.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. That sounds like a step in the right direction. So, what are the next steps they need to do to implement things?
Nico Zegre: This is always the big question with the big answer. The trust funds need to be funded, and they need to be funded by the legislature. Flooding is episodic, and so is support from elected representatives in state houses across the country. It needs to be funded, and the activities need to be followed through. And most importantly, underserved communities throughout West Virginia need to be included in the planning and decisionmaking process. They are experts in their lived experiences, and they know the strengths and understand the weaknesses of their communities. In a place like West Virginia, as with many rural places, it’s going to be impossible to move the needle on vulnerability without including the communities that are most impacted by this.
Margaret Walls: That's a very good point. Yeah. Well, let’s go local, then, and talk about local solutions. What do you see, if anything, happening in communities in West Virginia or elsewhere when it comes to hazard mitigation and building resilience? Have you seen some successful approaches or innovative ideas? Or, what's going on at the local level?
Nico Zegre: Yeah. It’s a monumental task. There’s no doubt about that. And quite frankly, people are pretty overwhelmed by the challenge of what should be done. And to be honest, I’m not necessarily sure we know how to plan for and mitigate these types of floods. To quote the director of the State Resiliency Office, Bob Martin, “Understanding the flood problem is like drinking from a fire hose.” There’s a lot of uncertainty on what’s going to work in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Traditional hard infrastructure like dams and levees are really expensive, and they’re also impractical in the heavily dissected landscape in West Virginia. And bio programs can be pretty problematic as well.
West Virginians are deeply tied to their land. And like many communities, marginalized communities don’t necessarily have anywhere to go. There's conversations around elevating homes or relocating communities, like what the governor of Kentucky is talking about. Rebuilding communities on abandoned surface mines. Theoretically, funding through the new flood resilience plan can help. But of course, it needs to be funded.
So, there’s lots of challenges on what to do. There’s been a lot of talk about nature-based solutions, which could be an effective way for mitigating flooding here in West Virginia. The new flood resiliency law actually speaks to nature-based solutions, which I think is really promising. But there is a huge question of what activities are actually effective, which are going to be practical, and which are going to be affordable. To shed light on this, students in my watershed management class at West Virginia University spent this past semester understanding how we go about planning and adaptation through nature-based solutions. And they came up with some great ideas that could be used. But at some point, we need to have solid information before we can spend money on solving the problem.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. We need to have a further conversation about nature-based solutions. Well, let me ask you: What do you think about how much local communities need to solve these problems on their own—which are very complex as you're pointing out—versus the state, versus federal guidance and money? Do you have some observations about the balance of who does what in this space? How do the feds, the state, and the locals work together on these problems?
Nico Zegre: It’s important to acknowledge that every community is different. Every community has different needs, different capacities, different risks, different vulnerabilities. And so, any potential solution is going to differ by community. There are no cookie-cutter solutions or cookie-cutter resilience plans to be developed. A big challenge here, and in many rural areas, is this well-earned distrust and mistrust of experts and institutions. Experts of every kind tend to parachute into communities following a disaster, just to tell the communities what happened, what’s wrong with them, and what needs to be done to fix the problem. Therefore, research and disaster planning can be a fairly extractive process. Decisionmaking and planning—they tend to be top down. And many communities have been excluded from all sorts of decisionmaking that have huge implications for their lives and livelihoods.
So, to go to your question, I believe in West Virginia that it has to be ground up. It has to be grassroots. It has to start with the communities, because they know what they need best. But communities themselves can’t do it without funding. And so the state government and the federal government play a really important role in that. But participation in the decisionmaking process has to be expanded to include communities that are most impacted by it.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, super good point. So now, let me ask you about your involvement, or researchers, or the university's involvement. Because I know, in addition to your lab that you run, you also are involved with the Center for Resilient Communities (CRC), which is a research center at WVU that works with communities on a range of issues, many of them justice-related, and tries to do both community-engaged research and also sort of build collective action to solve problems. So, tell us a little bit about the center and how that work is going. Is this partnership helpful to communities?
Nico Zegre: The Center for Resilient Communities was really founded with this understanding that building equitable and resilient communities in West Virginia requires a transformative approach to learning, knowledge, production, and action. Arguably, what has been being done hasn’t been working in so many different realms, whether it be food access, water security, or flood preparation. The CRC is a laboratory and experimental space where we’re learning to do this. Undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and community partners are learning about effective social action together through community engagement and participatory research. The ultimate goal of the CRC is to help create a new type of thinker—a problem solver and leader that can contribute to tackling these immense problems in West Virginia, but also abroad. And so how we do this is in small teams? We unpack current tools and technology, data, and policy to understand how decisions are being made, who is making them, and for whom.
And then, we try to rebuild tools and develop planning approaches that are equitable and meaningful for the community organizations that are involved. This is designed to enhance public discourse and decisionmaking. And so, this does rely heavily on participatory action research, where new knowledge is generated with community members and community partners at the table as experts in their lived experiences. This process of coproduction builds trust and confidence and expands the decisionmaking process. So yes, I believe these types of partnerships are really helpful. And I can expound a little bit more about some of our projects, but I'll let you go from there.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that’s great. It would be interesting to see how things go with you all. It's a great approach.
We’re just about out of time, so we have to close our podcast now with our regular feature we have, Nico, that we call Top of The Stack, where we ask our guests to recommend a book; or an article; or a movie; or a podcast; or anything, really, to our listeners. So, do you have something to share with us? What’s on the top of your stack?
Nico Zegre: I do, and this is a really exciting question. My recommendation is actually a song titled “You’re It!” by Wookiefoot. It’s a really powerful song about courage and hope. It tells a story of this child sitting next to the water’s edge, where floods divided people long ago. And the elders didn’t know how to swim. So, communities remained stranded and isolated. And this child asks herself, “Why am I so alone? And why are we all so alone?” and then she jumps into the current and knocks off rocks and has feelings of drowning. And as she’s being swept downstream, she drifts out of sight of her homeland. And she starts being excited about these new landscapes that she sees. And when she reaches the new shore, people rush down and say, “Who is this child who’s not afraid anymore?” These elders actually ask her to free them from all that enslaves them. To which she replies, “I’m not a savior, and this is not some kind of miracle. But I know where we need to begin. We just have to jump in.”
And so, to me, the story really tells a story of what has happened here in West Virginia, but also where we need to go. You know, how to move forward. We need to all jump in. But importantly, I didn’t have a chance to speak to this earlier, but the importance of including youth in planning for their own futures. And so, this song is really inspirational and grounding for me through this challenging work.
Margaret Walls: Oh, that’s great. I love that you recommended a song. I don't think we have that happen too often, so that’s great. Well, Nico, it’s been really a pleasure having you on Resources Radio. I’m really glad we were able to feature some of the flooding problems and solutions in Appalachia as part of our Climate Hits Home podcast series. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Nico Zegre: Great. Thank you so much for the opportunity and for your great work on this.
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