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U.Va. multidisciplinary team engages in flood mitigation efforts

University team creates a program with district commissions to build flood resilience in vulnerable local communities


For the past decade, communities in Lee, Wise and Scott counties have experienced several flood incidents. A multidisciplinary team at the University is working with the Lenowisco Planning Districts Commission to develop more creative and effective flood planning strategies in a program known as the Community Flood Resilience Initiative

The goal of the initiative is to provide better insight into how to support vulnerable communities impacted by flooding and to create innovative ways to mitigate flooding while maintaining continuous relief response to flood occurrences.

Daune Miller, the executive director of the Lenowisco Planning District Commission, works with the initiative to provide emergency response plans for local and regional disasters. Miller has been with the Lenowisco Planning District for over 24 years, serving the communities in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on,” Miller said. “Supporting community and economic development projects throughout Southwest Virginia, and just helping the community.”

Building creative and innovative planning strategies to combat flooding is beyond the means of local communities in these vulnerable districts due to the unavailability of resources needed to create effective resilience plans. However, with this recent partnership, there has been a greater chance to explore new opportunities, including using the University’s resources to make a roadmap for flood mitigation efforts in the future. 

Various members of the University are involved with the project. Asst. Engineering Prof. Majid Shafiee-Jood leads the involvement of the Engineering Systems and Environment department with the support of Engineering Prof. Jon Goodall and Assoc. Engineering Prof. Garrick Louis. The role of the Engineering Systems and Environment department is to conduct two main tasks — understand the main mechanisms of flooding in these vulnerable regions and develop a roadmap for flood mitigation efforts in the future.

“When we think of creative strategies, we think about more green strategies and shift away from a single-minded perspective,” Shafiee-Jood said. “These strategies address multiple objectives, not only flooding but also vulnerable communities.” 

As opposed to traditional planning strategies that are focused on building dams and sophisticated drainage systems for short-term relief without addressing the core issues of flooding, the team’s efforts are about developing more creative and effective flood resilience plans that provide a greater sense of security for vulnerable communities in the long term.

Less attention has been paid to the rural inland localities and as a means of remedying the situation, the team’s assessment and strategic planning are tailored to each county in the Lenowisco and Southside Districts. 

The Community Flood Resilience Initiative has four phases. The team is currently in the initial phase of conducting a baseline flood risk analysis in vulnerable communities in the Lenowisco and Southside Districts to determine the best approach for project planning. 

William Shobe, director of the Weldon Cooper Center and professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, leads the center’s efforts for the project with the support of Elizabeth Marshall, the senior project coordinator of the Virginia Solar Initiative for the Weldon Cooper Center. Kalen Hunter, program director with U.Va.’s College at Wise Office of Economic Development and Strategic Initiatives, provides additional regional support to the project. The Weldon Cooper Center is responsible for collecting the University’s resources to help the local communities with planning, assessing the risk of flooding and implementing good public policies for sustainability. 

“We are in the very early planning stages now, but we’re already ahead of the game,” Shobe said. “This is because we’re acknowledging that the risk is coming and trying to work on plans for addressing those risks in a sensible way.” 

The initial phase is proposed for completion by August when the team will provide the Planning District Commissions with a comprehensive and qualifying resilience plan. Having a good understanding of the baseline risk provides an avenue to produce better insight for localities in terms of mitigation strategies. 

In the second phase, the team will request funding to develop the flood resilience plans. 

The projects are funded by a grant from the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative will also provide funding for the advancement of the project. However, with the potential withdrawal of Virginia from RGGI due to over taxation and an increase in the cost of living in Virginia, the Planning District Commissions may have to seek other grant avenues. 

Although the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund is set aside to build flood mitigation projects and support vulnerable communities, the grants have to be applied for through the provision of approvable resilience plans. 

Bev Wilson, associate professor of urban and environmental planning, leads the School of Architecture’s involvement in the project, along with Tanya Denckla Cobb, director of the Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, and IEN associate Kelly Altizer. The School of Architecture provides insight into the measure of social vulnerability in the affected localities, which allows for a more comprehensive resilience plan.

“In order to access the funds to support these flood resilience planning, localities have to demonstrate capacity,” Wilson said. “They have to provide a resilience plan that meets certain criteria.” 

Demonstrating capacity involves being conscious of certain criteria that have to be met. These include the recognition of the importance of enhancing nature-based solutions, acknowledging climate change and its consequences, ensuring equity through protection efforts, and focusing on the most cost-effective solutions for the protection of these vulnerable communities.

The third phase involves conducting stakeholder engagement activities to better understand the perspectives of residents in those districts and help to inform additional research. This is to ensure that the needs of the residents of these communities are examined properly and reflected in future planning strategies. 

The fourth phase will be implementing these plans. Wilson explained that, while implementation of the planning strategies established by the team might take about two to three years, the members of the Lenowisco and Southside districts can support the advancement of the project by advocating for keeping Virginia in RGGI and learning more about flood risks and the implications of climate change.

The team is working on creating a framework for other communities. The goal is to reach as many regions that require assistance and proactively explore more opportunities to extend solutions. 

“We hope that we can increase the footprint of this project,” Shafiee-Jood said. “Not only here at U.Va., but also elsewhere in the industry in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

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