The best time to prepare for a flood isn’t when the water is rising.
Representatives from state and local agencies gathered at Richmond’s floodwall in Shockoe Bottom on Monday to spread a message of flood readiness.
Gov. Ralph Northam proclaimed March 10-16 as Virginia’s first flood awareness week, following a 2018 executive order aimed at making the state more resilient to weather disasters and climate change.
“Flooding is the most common and costly disaster in this state,” said Clyde Cristman, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the agency tasked with floodplain management and dam safety.
“Disaster assistance is not intended to be a substitute for flood insurance,” Cristman said.
Once a flood is occurring, it is too late to cover a loss. Flooding is not covered by most homeowners insurance policies. That could mean paying out of pocket to repair water damage and replace lost items.
Despite our recent experience with flash floods and a long history of hurricanes, only 3 percent of Virginia homes are covered by a flood insurance policy.
Even in the known flood hazard areas, only 31 percent of homes are covered, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the government-backed National Flood Insurance Program, said approximately 106,000 Virginia homes had a flood insurance policy in force as of September 2018.
The highest count for any locality was Virginia Beach with 24,061, but low-lying Poquoson has the most policies per capita.
Locally, there were 606 policies in Richmond, 914 in Chesterfield County, 256 in Hanover County and 1,051 in Henrico County.
One major misconception is that areas outside of floodplains are safe from all risk.
As we saw several times last year, runoff from intense downpours can invade basements and businesses in every corner of the state.
According to Cristman, 70 percent of the flood claims following 2016’s Hurricane Matthew came from outside of the mapped flood risk area.
Flood insurance policies can be less costly for those living in low-risk areas.
Home and business owners can learn more about their vulnerability using the Virginia Flood Risk Information System, an interactive map tool on the DCR website.
The officials attending Monday’s announcement took a guided tour of Richmond’s floodwall between Dock Street and 14th Street.
This year marks 25 years since its dedication in 1994.
The barriers are designed to keep water from rising into much of Shockoe Bottom and Manchester, and protect the sewer system.
It does not prevent flash floods caused by heavy rain falling directly on the city, as was the case with the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston in 2004.
Retention ponds and pumping stations help to reduce water buildup on the developed side of the wall, and drainage was improved in the years following Gaston.
The floodwall system undergoes annual testing and maintenance.
A prediction for a 23-foot reading at the Westham river gauge will cause a crew from the city of Richmond to close all of the gates.
However, some of the underground gates are closed for levels as low as 6 feet to 9 feet, and have already been used during minor and moderate floods several times this year.
It has yet to face a truly major test: There hasn’t been a major flood on the James River in the past quarter-century.
The most recent crest of that magnitude hit 24.77 feet on Nov. 7, 1985, according to the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Agnes set the modern record for Westham at 28.62 feet on June 23, 1972. Water surged even higher during a 1771 flood that killed 150 people.