Floods, Roads and Risk Management

Storm-related road repairs in Northumberland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury.

In a blog post yesterday (“Risk and the Fisc”), I cited an Old Dominion University study that guesstimated that Katrina-scale hurricane could cause $40 billion in damages and lost economic activity in Hampton Roads. The cost to the Commonwealth of coping with such a disaster, said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, “keeps me up at night.”

Today comes news that the cost of repairing road damage in the aftermath of Tropic Storm Michael is estimated to be $25 million. Six months after the storm hit Virginia, 17 roads around the state are still under repair, reports The Virginia Mercury. That’s the damage from a tropical storm, which generated a fraction of the rain, wind, and storm surge associated with a Class 5 hurricane.

Crews have been fixing pipes and washed-out roads, mostly inland where heavy rains caused flash flooding. I have seen maps showing the parts of Virginia, mainly in Hampton Roads and bordering the Chesapeake Bay, that would be inundated in storm surge. I haven’t seen any estimates of what a massive inundation would do to roads in those areas. The ODU study estimated $13 billion in water-related damage from a Katrina-scale hurricane. The explanation of how that figure was derived counts houses, business buildings, and essential public facilities such as schools, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, and emergency shelters, but says nothing about roads.

Layne worries where the money would come from to pay for evacuating and sheltering hundreds of of thousands of people from low-lying areas, cleaning up millions of tons of debris, and repairing state-owned infrastructure. Presumably, road repairs could be covered by state transportation funds by bumping other transportation projects. Bumping $25 million worth of projects doesn’t foist too much hardship on others. Bumping ten times that sum after a full-fledged hurricane might cause some trauma.

The Big Question: As Virginians think about building climate resilience into their land use patterns, we cannot avoid thinking about the public cost of maintaining and repairing roads in flood- and inundation-prone areas. Should the state continue socializing those costs or is there a mechanism, such as special tax districts, that would shift the costs to houses and businesses that choose to locate and/or rebuild in vulnerable zones?

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11 responses to “Floods, Roads and Risk Management

  1. Just think for a moment that VDOT, according to expert Carol B, struggles even keep the ditches in Mathews County, Va. in operable condition. How much extra flooding damage and dislocation does that causes citizens and state annually for one Virginia county alone. If the state chronically fails to maintain ditches, why in world would we expect them to undertake the real work required to defend against a 50 or 100 year storm? Might as well ask state to lay an egg.

    • Ask your expert who actually does the work of keeping ditches clear. I seem to remember that several years ago, VDOT, in an effort to reduce the number of state employees, elected to contract out these local maintenance functions. I don’t know if there were any cost savings, but the local VDOT managers certainly lost flexibility over what got done and when.

      • Dick –

        Below, on this Facebook website, you can get the latest on Mathews County’s ongoing, seemingly endless, struggle to keep its ditches operating. In this age of high tech government, we seem to have lost, perhaps forever, our most basic skills needed for simple survival in the real world of nature.

        See: https://www.facebook.com/MCditches/

  2. so, here’s the problem:

    Even if we just get an average year of rain – we’re seeing higher than average rain events that are larger than many drainage structures were sized for originally.

    Gaston in Richmond, dumped over 12 inches in just hours.

    In Houston, it was 30 inches in 24 hours.

    Few of the existing storm pipes and infrastructure whether built by VDOT or others were built to sustain that level of rainfall.

    That’s what’s going on up in our neck of the woods. We’re seeing culverts that are 30, 40 ,50 years old that experience numerous rain events like we’ve not seen in decades…and those pipes were just not designed for that much rainfall in a few hours.

    Many of the hurricanes we now see -we don’t actually get the hurricane winds, we get extreme rainfall and we’re not seeing traditional flooding of low lying areas or flood plains as much as we’re seeing many failures of culverts upland from the low lying areas.

  3. A skill that all government entities seem to lack is the ability to manage contracts. It’s not a partisan issue but an important one.

    • It’s my sense that Virginia’s management of large construction contracts has improved a great deal since the arrival of Layne.

      And recall that the management of the Silver Line improved a great deal after VDOT took it over from the infamous Dulles crew. Of course, VDOT for many years, even decades, had a stellar reputation. It was my sense that the failure to manage large private contracts was at the root of most recent problems. I suspect much of that loss of local ethic grew out of a rising failure of competent management at the Federal level, and that these long term failures went on steroids during the Obama years. Recall the $Trillion Stimulus package spent on “shovel ready works”during great recession that were in fact little more that political hand out favors in majority of cases. Hundreds of billions quite literally thrown away, wasted, for political gain. This broke wide open the dam of a problem that had been growing for decades. Recall the $billion Obamacare website that followed in its wake. 2000 t0 2016 – this was truly “Government’s Gilded Age.” And its growing still.

  4. Here’s more:

    ” after a culvert washed out a section of road on Holkham Drive in Albemarle County, near Charlottesville, Va., Thursday, May 31, 2018, following heavy rain”

    Heavy rains generated by subtropical Storm Alberto unleashed flooding in Virginia that washed out bridges, damaged homes, closed schools and transformed a normally peaceful creek into a raging river that swept away cars with people still in them. At least one person was killed and rescuers were searching for others.

    The storm, already blamed for at least four deaths in the U.S. earlier in the week, was pushing across the Great Lakes on Thursday. But the National Weather Service said the potential for more rainfall and flash flooding would continue for the Southeast, the Ohio Valley and the mid-Atlantic through the end of the week.

    Since making landfall on Memorial Day in the Florida Panhandle, Alberto’s heavy rains have been widespread, with flooding reported from Alabama through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, the Carolinas and West Virginia.

    “Ivy Creek is normally a very docile creek but with 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) of rain … it turned into a swollen, raging river.

    Elsewhere in the Southeast, the storms triggered flooding and mudslides.

    In the North Carolina mountain town of Boone, one of those mudslides was blamed for a gas leak and explosion that destroyed a home Wednesday afternoon, killing two people.

    isolated heavy rain storms that could instantly cause flooding in areas that have had 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain in the past 15 days.

  5. It’s hard to grasp what Sec Layne is saying exactly. Virginia is strange compared to other states, in that VDOT owns everything right down to the little local court I live on. We are vulnerable to hurricanes, but so are other coastal areas. If we are behind other states in mitigation planning or have special larger risks that the other states, then we have to consider making a plan to address the situation.

  6. There are 3 states where the DOTs “own” all the roads , Virginia, NC and Texas.

    In those other states, it is the Counties that are responsible and in general county roads are a notch down in standards and maintenance. In addition, VDOT has no control over land-use policies which result in clearing land and replacing it with impervious surfaces.

    In addition, in Virginia, All cities and most towns and two counties “own” their own local roads (but not the state/federal roads that go through them, e.g. Routes 1 and I-95 through Henrico).

    The issue is who is responsible for drainage facilities that are NOT at the road itself. For instance, most required storm ponds that receive runoff are not owned by VDOT but others. Same with Dams. If they fail and take out a road who is responsible?

    VDOT is not REQUIRED to own each and every road – either. They don’t own roads that are in gated communities often with their own lakes and dams. In fact, VDOT now longer maintains roads over private dams and will not accept new subdivision roads built to state standards and that includes drainage infrastructure.

    VDOT builds a road, puts in drainage and culverts and then later the undeveloped land upstream is developed, cleared and the runoff increases drammatically. If VDOT is required to size drainage facilities to the maximum possible runoff if all upstream land is ultimately developed – the cost of the road increases multi-fold.

    Many developed areas that were developed decades ago – there is no room for re-sizing drainage unless private property is taken.

    Finally, it’s not just a VDOT issue They can and do size new culverts and drainage to deal with 100/500 year flooding but that water that actually does travel successfully through the drainage infrastructure then floods other adjacent property and infrastructure – like sewage treatment plants and structures built near small creeks that normally have litte or no water in them – until we get a 20 inch rain event.

    It’s way, way more than just a “VDOT” problem.

    • 1. Only state where the sitting governor can not stand for a second consecutive term (yet legislators can hold office for life).
      2. One of four states with no restrictions on political contributions to state politicians.
      3. One of only two states where the legislature (including practicing attorneys) elect judges with no independent vetting process.
      4. Only state where cities are never within counties.
      5. One of only three states where DOT owns all roads (except in cities and 2 counties)
      6. One of three (?) states to hold off-year elections.
      7. Hardest state for independent candidates to get on the ballot.
      8. Fifth most gerrymandered state.
      9. No ethics commission for politicians.

      How many outlier situations does it take before Virginians start to see the deep corruption and dishonesty of our state political system?

      I’ve been all over this country. Trust me … our politicians are not smarter than all the other states’ politicians. Not by a long shot. We’re not ahead of the rest of the country. We’re behind. Far, far behind.

  7. The answer to who will pay for the damage to public infrastructure in the case of a major natural disaster is simple, but most folks here are not going to like it. The federal government, through FEMA, will pay for a large portion of it. Yes, I realize that is taxpayer money, but it means it will not fall on Virginia alone. However, FEMA money does not often become available quickly, so there could be cash flow problems. And, FEMA money is not as readily available to private businesses and homeowners.

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