Stephanie Stiltner's home in Hurley was damaged but is being rebuilt, unlike several nearby houses. “We have issues here, but my neighbors' houses aren't even standing," she said. "To walk back off that hill and see nothing where stuff had been all your life, it is just -- I don't even have a word for it. Devastating is the best word I’ve got." Photo by Lakin Keene.

Hurley, a small community in Buchanan County, in the far reaches of Southwest Virginia suffered terrible losses on August 30th, 2021 as a driving rain sent creeks over their banks. The flood waters and mudslides destroyed more than 35 homes and damaged 50 others, washing out roads, and leaving children who were already at school suddenly bereft of homes to return to. One woman was swept away in the floodwaters and drowned. 

Map by Robert Lunsford

This was a disaster. And in the economically and environmentally distressed coalfields, it is increasingly likely to happen again. 

The good news is that Virginia has a new tool in hand to protect against these calamities. In July of 2020, Governor Northam and the General Assembly brought Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), joining other eastern states in limiting carbon emissions and auctioning the rights to emit. These market sales’ dollars flow into the state coffers, with 45% of the money earmarked to the new Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) that supports flood preparation, planning, and resilience in all Virginia’s counties and cities. 

The first two rounds of distributions will deliver nearly $25 million to communities across Virginia. The monies won’t just go to coastal flood-prone areas like Virginia Beach or Norfolk, but also Winchester, Richmond, and Buchanan County, where these funds will help communities like Hurley avoid future disasters with planning and remediation projects.

Intense and increasing patterns of severe weather tell us that the only smart move is to put on-the-ground, real solutions to protect people and property – especially those communities experiencing the double distress of flood exposure and economic disadvantage, who need solutions the most. 

Unfortunately, Governor-elect Youngkin has stated that he plans to pull Virginia out of RGGI, forfeiting tens of millions of dollars every year, monies that otherwise could have helped double-distressed areas like Southwest Virginia, Southside Virginia, the City of Petersburg, and the Eastern Shore protect against future disasters. 

We strongly believe that the regional carbon market and the community flood preparedness grants are the right solution for the citizens of the Commonwealth and that Virginia should remain members of RGGI and continue to receive this vital funding. However, as political realists, we know a backup plan is in order. 

Delegate Will Morefield, representing Buchanan County and its neighbors, has introduced HB5. This bill will keep the intent of the Community Flood Preparedness Fund intact, and it will do so by earmarking flood funds for double-distressed areas whether or not Virginia remains a member of the regional carbon market. 

These social justice measures take two forms in Del. Morefield’s bill. If Virginia remains a member of RGGI and proceeds continue to flow to the CFPF, 2.5% of the community fund portion will provide relief for victims of flooding in areas where no federal relief funding was available. Another 2.5% will go to flood resilience planning, again targeting the double-distressed communities. 

If Virginia withdraws from RGGI as Governor-elect, Youngkin, has indicated he prefers, Morefield’s Bill provides a Plan B in which $50 million of the funds already in hand will be allocated to double-distressed areas in equal shares for victim relief and flood planning for the future. 

After last August’s flood, Hurley residents were shocked to receive no federal relief funds from FEMA. The only help they’ll receive will be from the Commonwealth and their own determination. Staying a member of the RGGI carbon market would go a long way toward ensuring that Hurley and other vulnerable Virginia communities will receive critical support for years to come. 

Should Governor-elect make good on his promise to leave RGGI and abandon these funds, Del. Morefield’s HB5, “Hope for Hurley, VA” Bill, does the right thing by delivering a portion of the dwindling funds to the places and people that need it the most. 

Charlie Westbrook

Westbrook is a principal with First Earth | 2030, an environmental asset management firm in Richmond.

Tee Clarkson

Clarkson is a principal with First Earth | 2030, an environmental asset management firm in Richmond.