FARMINGTON, W.Va. — In the hometown of Senator Joe Manchin, a flood-prone settlement of about 200 homes that hugs a curve on a shallow creek, the rain is getting worse.
Those storms drained the river, called Buffalo Creek, inundating homes along its banks. They burst streams down the hills on either side of this former coal-mining town, pushing water into the basement. They saturate the ground, seeping into Farmington’s old pipes and overwhelming its sewage treatment system.
Climate change is warming the air, causing it to hold more moisture, leading to more frequent and intense rainfall. And according to data released last week, no state in the United States is more exposed to flood damage than West Virginia.
From the porch of his riverfront house, Jim Hall, who is married to Mr Manchin’s cousin, described how rescuers pulled him and his wife out of their house with a rope during a flood in 2017. He told his neighbours, Mr. Munchkin’s sister and brother-in-law vacate their basement when a storm hits. He calls the local authorities when the river smells of raw sewage.
“Over the years here in West Virginia, we have had an incredible amount of rain,” Mr. Hall said. “We have seriously considered not staying.”
Mr Manchin, a Democrat whose vote is crucial to passing his party’s climate law, opposes its most important provision that would force utilities to stop burning oil, coal and gas and instead use solar, wind and would use nuclear power, which does not emit the carbon dioxide that is warming the planet. Last week, the senator made his opposition clear to the Biden administration, which is now scrambling to come up with options he will accept.
Mr Manchin has rejected any plans to move the country away from fossil fuels because he said it would hurt West Virginia, a top producer of coal and gas. Mr. Manchin’s own finances are linked to coal: He founded a family coal brokerage that paid him half a million dollars in dividends last year.
But when it comes to climate, inaction also causes economic damage.
New data shows constituents of Mr Manchin are suffering disproportionately as climate change intensifies. Unlike other flood-prone states, most residents of mountainous West Virginia have little room to move from waterways that increasingly threaten their safety.
Adding to the problem, experts say, West Virginia officials have struggled to better protect residents. They point to a reluctance among state officials to talk about climate change, and to housing that hasn’t been built up to the challenge, making West Virginia less capable than other parts of the country.
A clean electricity program, a measure that Mr Manchin opposes, could be Congress’s last chance to reduce planet-warming emissions before the devastating effects of climate change begin.
A clean electricity program would reward utilities that switch from burning oil, gas and coal to using wind, solar and nuclear power, and penalize those that do not. It is designed to get 80 percent of the country’s electricity from clean sources by 2030, up from 40 percent now.
Sam Runyon, a spokesman for Mr. Manchin, said the senator “has long acknowledged the impacts of climate change in West Virginia. That’s why he has worked hard to find a way forward on important climate legislation that will support energy and energy.” Maintains American leadership in innovation and critical energy reliability.
Others say that by blocking efforts to reduce coal and gas use, Mr Manchin risks harming his state.
“Not having a credible policy in America makes it nearly impossible to negotiate real change on a global scale,” said Democratic State Representative Evan Hansen. “This means that West Virginians will continue to face greater impacts from climate change.”
Schools, power stations and businesses at risk
The new flood data comes from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that uses more granular techniques to measure flood risk than the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
First Street measures risk not only from rivers but also from smaller creeks and streams – waterways that expose cities such as Farmington to such high flooding, yet are usually left off FEMA’s flood maps.
First Street calculated the share of all types of infrastructure at risk of becoming inactive due to a so-called 100-year flood – a flood that statistically has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. The group compared the results for every state except Alaska and Hawaii. In many respects, West Virginia tops the list.
Sixty-one percent of West Virginia’s power stations are at risk, the highest nationwide and more than twice the average. West Virginia also leads the share of its roads at risk of flooding at 46 percent.
The state also ranks highest for the share of fire stations (57 per cent) and police stations (50 per cent) exposed to 100 years of flooding.
And West Virginia ties with Louisiana with the largest share of schools (38 percent) and commercial properties (37 percent) at risk.
“The state’s geography and topography result in the creation of many homes, roads and critical infrastructure along the rivers, around which we see widespread flooding,” said First Street spokesman Michael Lopes.
But topography isn’t all that increases West Virginia’s flood risk. Surface mining for coal has removed soil and vegetation that once absorbed rain before reaching creeks and rivers, and has pushed rocks and dirt into those waterways, allowing them to carry large amounts of water. are able to.
“Since stream corridors fill with sediment and debris, there is less storage capacity,” said Nicholas Zegre, director of the West Virginia University Mountain Hydrology Laboratory. “It takes less water to spread.”
flood, repair, repeat
The effects of increased flooding can be seen where Mr Manchin built his political career.
To the northeast of Farmington is Morgantown, with homes nestled in narrow streets that jut down from the hills, cutting at precarious angles. Mr. Manchin represented the city in the state Senate; It is also home to West Virginia University, his alma mater.
In June, Morgantown received more than two inches of rain in less than an hour, according to Damian Davis, the city’s director of engineering and public works. It turned a main thoroughfare, Pattson Drive, into the river and reversed the flow of sewers, pushing waste into the basement.
It happened again in July: The city received more than three inches of rain in an hour, the Patson became a river, and raw sewage went into the basement.
“We had never experienced anything like this,” said Mr. Davis.
Muhammad Ariturk is the owner of Istanbul, a small restaurant on Patson Drive. He shut his doors, but his restaurant was flooded both times. “We tried to stop the water coming here, but we could not,” he said.
A mile north, Mary Anne Marner lives in a white bungalow near a creek. The first flood sent sewage into her basement, ruining her husband’s recliner, among other damages.
“Sewage came out of the bathtub and out of the toilet,” she said. Ms. Marner and her husband replaced the recliner. Then the basement flooded again, and the new recliner went out.
State climatologist Kevin Law said the research suggests “the increase in extreme rainfall in West Virginia” is the result of a changing climate.
‘It instills in you nothing but fear’
Twenty miles to the southeast is Tunnelton, where Dave Biggins has a convenience store in a building over an underground creek. Until recently, the creek had rarely risen high enough to damage the foundation – perhaps once a decade, Mr. Biggins estimated.
Then, two years ago, the appliance space under his store filled up three times in a single year. That was nothing compared to last month, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida left its store in knee-deep water, causing $80,000 in damage.
“After that, every time it says it’s going to rain very hard, it instills in you nothing but fear,” said Mr Biggins, who doesn’t have flood insurance.
To the east of Tunnelton is Terra Alta, one of the highest towns in Preston County. In September, heavy rain poured three inches of water inside Terra Alta’s town hall and, according to Mayor James Tasker, flooded some of the city’s basements.
“It comes through the wall,” said Mr. Tasker. “It’s our drainage system, which we can’t afford to update.”
Half an hour south, Rawlsberg’s mayor, Eric Bautista, is trying to find funds to rebuild the city’s old stormwater system, which releases raw sewage into the Cheat River when it rains. “It’s a lousy system that’s extra lousy when it rains,” Mr Bautista said.
According to Amanda Pitzer, executive director of environmental nonprofit Friends of the Cheat, the results reach beyond the county.
“This water goes to Pittsburgh,” Ms. Pitzer said recently, standing on the edge of the Cheat. “You have to think downward.”
‘That’s the risk we’re willing to take’
After West Virginia was hit by particularly severe flooding in June 2016, it created a state resilience office to help protect against future flooding.
But the head of that office was gone earlier this year. He was replaced by his deputy, Robert Martin Jr., who likened the role to drinking from a fire hose during a hearing in front of state lawmakers last month.
He wants to update the state’s flood protection plan. “It hadn’t been seen in about 20 years,” Mr Martin said. “A lot of things in it were really antiquated.”
Mr Martin did not respond to requests for comment. The state declined to make any officials associated with disaster recovery or resilience work available for an interview.
Stephen Baldwin, a Democratic state senator whose district was devastated by the 2016 floods, said the state is moving too slowly. He said the slowdown reflects the political stigma attached to global warming.
“Nobody wants to talk about the real driving factor here, which is climate,” Mr Baldwin said.
As flooding continues to increase, West Virginia’s leaders, including Mr Manchin, should stop looking at the identity of a coal-bound state, said Jamie Shin, a geography professor at West Virginia University who has been working hard to adapt to climate change. focus on.
“I don’t think he is defending the future economy and the viability of this state,” Dr. Shin said. “The state has so much potential beyond fossil fuels.”
Despite repeated disasters, this approach is a hard sell for many West Virginians.
“I am a big proponent of using the natural resources that we have,” said Jim Hall, Farmington resident and Mr Manchin’s cousin.
To choose between burning less coal or suffering from worsening floods, he said the worsening flood was less of a threat.
“You can change a house,” said Mr. Hall. “That’s the risk we’re willing to take.”