As hurricane season begins, officials urge preparation

Charlie Paullin | 6/6/2024, 6 p.m.
In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel slammed the East Coast and thrashed Virginia and North Carolina most severely, prompting widespread power …
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with members of the press about hurricane season forecasts on May 24. Photo by Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury

In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel slammed the East Coast and thrashed Virginia and North Carolina most severely, prompting widespread power outages, 4-to 6-foot storm surges, flooding, and billions in damage. The storm caused at least 50 direct and indirect deaths. Lasting memories of that disaster now loom large, as the federal government forecasts this year’s hurricane season, June 1 to Nov. 30, will be a tumultuous one.

“We can have 27 storms in a year,” said Shawn Talmadge, state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “Only one storm can cause devastation across the commonwealth.”

Ahead of the active hurricane season, state leaders are urging Virginians to prepare as environmental groups call for stronger policy addressing storms that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

The increase in storms coincides with a climate pattern switch, from the drier El Niño season to the stormier La Niña season.

This year, the federal government has projected a range of 17 to 25 storms that have wind speeds of 39 miles per hour or higher. These storms will be named, which helps scientists keep track of the events.

Of those, eight to 13 are forecasted to become hurricanes, with winds of 74 miles per hour or more. Of those, four to seven are expected to be major hurricanes, reaching categories 3, 4 or 5, with wind speeds of 111 miles per hour or higher.

“With another active hurricane season approaching, NOAA’s commitment to keeping every American informed with life-saving information is unwavering,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D.

Specific information on implications for Virginia was not included in the NOAA’s forecast, but an outlook for this summer shows that Virginia has an above normal chance of precipitation for the season.

This year, the federal government has projected a range of 17 to 25 storms that have wind speeds of 39 miles per hour or higher. These storms will be named, which helps scientists keep track of the events. Virginia also will cooperate with neighboring states to address evacuation challenges in the Hampton Roads and Eastern Shore area’s network of tunnels and bridges, which can be constrained during a disaster, the governor told reporters. The state will also coordinate with Virginia’s electric utilities to maintain power during storms.

“We launched this program a decade ago after finding that a significant number of storm-related power outages were occurring in a relatively small number of areas,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia, in a news release touting the burying of 2,000 miles of overhead lines as part of the utility’s Strategic Underground Program.

Preparing for floods spurred by storms is also “really important,” said Emily Steinhilber, director of climate resilient coasts and watersheds in Virginia for the Environmental Defense Fund.

With multiple studies finding an approximate 20% duration increase in rainfall, Steinhilber added, “Hurricane season gives us some names and a time of year to focus on this, but often-times we see heavy flooding from now [until] the fall. We can’t let down our guard.”

Youngkin acknowledged the need to balance handling back-to-back storms and post disaster assistance, which advocates say needs to be made more accessible to those who need it and stem from a dedicated source.

In one of the scenarios depicting bigger storm impacts, Youngkin said “there may in fact not be surge capacity of equipment and capabilities” to help with cleanup “because they’re already deployed.”

While the governor has previously acknowledged that climate change — which scientists say is likely leading to more intense tropical storms — is a threat, Youngkin also has pushed for continued use of natural gas to generate energy, which can cause emissions that the same scientists say is leading to climate change.

The repeated storms impact Virginia in different ways; one major consequence is flooding.

The Southwest Virginia region was pummeled with intense periods of rainfall in Hurley and Whitewood in 2022 and 2021, respectively, that led to the death of one person; flooding spawned black mold in homes, leading to health issues and other complications some residents are still dealing with, said Emma Kelly, new economy field coordinator with the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices.

“Recovery is still ongoing. It’s been slow,” said Kelly, adding that flood-destroyed driveways alongside bridges in the hollers of the mountainous terrain haven’t been repaired. “Not only were [people] having to park across the street, carry groceries, carry whatever, down a valley, up a valley. A lot of these [people] are elderly residents— folks who aren’t necessarily the most mobile.”

Following those storms, the state diverted funds from the carbon market known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to provide about $11 million to repair flood damage in Hurley and $18 million for Whitewood flood restoration. Youngkin issued an executive order in 2022 to pull the state out of RGGI.

Lawmakers tried to force the state back into the program during budget negotiations this year, but that measure was excluded from the budget lawmakers and Youngkin agreed to enact last month.

There are other ways the state helps after devastating floods, but they come with challenges for individuals and communities who need aid. According to Amanda Love, spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, the state doled out about $8 million for 117 approved applications for the Hurley flood and about $1 million for 25 approved applications for the Whitewood one.

But “legally and then financially, it’s just a bunch of bureaucratic knots,” Kelly said.

Owners whose private properties are handed down through families without proper documentation or a deed might find it hard to get help, Kelly said. Another challenge is how the state coordinates with various agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to assist residents after extreme weather, said Kelly.

Reducing requirements for the aid are among the policy proposals her group and several others are recommending as part of a report expected to be fully released later this month.

“Flood insurance is essential,” added Steinhilber, with the Environmental Defense Fund, because it can provide residents coverage in the absence of federal or state disaster relief.

In addition to diverting the RGGI funds, Virginia began its own research last year into how a state program could provide disaster relief if residents don’t get federal assistance.

Asked about that research, a VDEM spokesperson and Talmadge pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s revamped disaster assistance program, which now rolls aid applications into a single form.

“They’ve made significant revisions to the individual assistance program to include under insurance situations,” Talmadge said. “We’re just really excited about the number of reforms that the federal government has implemented over at FEMA.”

President Biden’s administration also announced in October about $86 million in Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant funds will be awarded to Virginia.

“That will be a challenge,” said Steinhilber.

This story originally appeared on VirginiaMercury.com.