Much of the destruction in Hurley was caused by mudslides, as the torrential rain washed the sides of hills down into houses. Residents with flood insurance have learned that their policies don't cover slides. Photo by Lakin Keene.

Updated 4:40 p.m. Dec. 8:

On Wednesday, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin told attendees at a Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce gathering that he would withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative by executive order. (The announcement was first reported by Virginia Scope.)

Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, responded to the news via email:

“Withdrawing from RGGI by Executive Order will send a message to my colleagues in the House and Senate that it is highly unlikely Virginia will be rejoining RGGI under a Youngkin Administration. Roughly $228 million dollars has been raised from carbon credit auctions since Virginia joined RGGI. It is incumbent upon the General Assembly to ensure those proceeds are invested wisely so that Virginians will benefit from the investments for decades to come. House Bill 5 was officially filed on Tuesday evening. If Virginia withdraws from RGGI the bill will create a $50 million dollar statewide Flood Relief Fund that will make the flood victims of the Hurley community whole again and ensure that future flood victims from across the Commonwealth will not have to suffer like they have. The bill would also create a fund that could be used for flood prevention and flood protection projects in some of Virginia’s poorest localities. I could not think of a more appropriate use for the RGGI proceeds.” 

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A devastating flood in Buchanan County – and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s subsequent denial of financial help for homeowners – has led the region’s delegate to propose a flood relief fund that would fill the financial gap.

Legislation drafted by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, would create the fund using money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that over the past year has brought more than $227 million to Virginia. 

Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County

“I don’t know how we can honestly look in the eyes of the people that have been affected and just simply give them words of encouragement when we have the ability to legislatively solve this,” he said.

Flooding and mudslides triggered by an Aug. 30 downpour destroyed dozens of homes in the Guesses Fork section of Hurley and seriously damaged scores more. One person was killed. Homeowners who had insurance found that their policies wouldn’t cover their losses; even those who held flood policies were denied coverage for damage caused by mudslides.

Although Buchanan County was approved for federal financial help for rebuilding infrastructure and cleaning up debris, FEMA denied assistance to individual homeowners, saying in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam that “the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant such aid.

Map by Robert Lunsford

The fund proposed by Morefield would kick in when a locality or region is declared a major federal disaster area. It would be available to any property owner whose claims were denied by insurance, as well as to those who don’t have insurance.

Unlike FEMA, which caps its awards at $36,000 per property owner, this fund would potentially pay for the complete rebuild or repair of private property.

The fund, which would be administered by the Department of Emergency Management, would provide payments of up to $500,000 for residential properties and up to $1 million for commercial properties. Claims made within so-called distressed or double-distressed localities – those with jobless and poverty rates above the state average – would be paid at higher rates, up to 175% of the assessed property value. That would help mitigate the fact that tax appraisals of homes in economically distressed areas tend to be much lower than the actual cost to rebuild, he said.

To pay for the fund, Morefield would tap the money that Virginia receives every year from its participation in RGGI, a cooperative effort among 11 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Virginia joined RGGI last summer, pushed by a Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Member states cap carbon dioxide emissions, and power plants must either reduce pollution to meet the cap or buy allowances through RGGI auctions. The money brought in through the auctions is then shared among the participating states.

RGGI last week released the results of the most recent quarterly auction, which netted Virginia $85.6 million. Over the past year, the state’s share of the auction proceeds has totalled $227.6 million.

Currently, half of Virginia’s RGGI proceeds are earmarked for energy efficiency programs benefiting low-income residents. Another 45% is to be invested in community flood prevention and coastal resilience programs, and the remainder covers administrative costs.

Morefield proposes putting 5% of auction proceeds – taken out of the 45% earmarked for flood prevention – into the flood fund. Under his plan, if Virginia were to pull out of RGGI, $50 million of the unobligated auction proceeds would be put into the flood relief fund.

“Some may resist giving up the program funds for other purposes, and they may argue that all funds are obligated because they’ve been allocated,” Morefield said. “This is more of a political argument rather than a legal one. The remaining funds have been allocated but not appropriated, it’s still possible to reappropriate them.”

This is “a very small ask,” he said, that could help rebuild a community that has been devastated – and provide hope for victims of future disasters.

In a written statement, state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, concurred. “So many individuals and organizations from around the Commonwealth and beyond have donated their time and resources to help the victims. We are very grateful, but ultimately we must do something on a large scale. Until their homes are rebuilt and repaired the victims of the flood will not be made whole.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.