Local officials are seeking input from residents to develop a plan that could mitigate damage after disasters — such as the tornadoes and flooding that hit Lynchburg and the surrounding counties in 2018.
On Dec. 4, the Central Virginia Planning District Commission (CVPDC) will hold the first of two public meetings to present a draft update to its Hazard Mitigation Plan — also called a pre-disaster plan — and encourage citizens to give feedback and share concerns regarding how to prepare for natural disasters in their area.
The plan, which localities are required to revise every five years, covers Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties, the city of Lynchburg, and the towns of Altavista, Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Brookneal.
First created in 2006, the plan aims to lessen the negative impact on individuals, businesses and properties when a natural disaster occurs, like flooding, high winds, tornadoes or extreme heat.
“These large natural hazard events are happening, and the cost ... is so exorbitant,” said Kelly Hitchcock, planning and development director for CVPDC, adding it’s more cost-efficient for regions to create and fund strategies before a disaster strikes.
Lynchburg was denied financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2018 because damage costs of $8 million did not reach the $11.8 million threshold for relief money.
The current draft of the plan includes a case study of the College Lake Dam in Lynchburg on Lakeside Drive. On Aug. 2, 2018, College Lake overtopped the dam because of 6 inches of heavy rainfall, causing more than 150 people downstream to evacuate their homes.
“It’s a real important example of why we need these plans in place,” said Peter Sforza, director at the Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT) at Virginia Tech. “If there were a breach, having a plan would make sure that the community is eligible for disaster assistance.”
Since 2018, CGIT has been working with CVPDC to gather and analyze data on the four-county region, Sforza said.
“You can’t eliminate natural hazards … but what you can do is look at data,” Hitchcock said. “That data looks at past event data, it looks at weather data, it looks at properties in the area.”
Hitchcock said it’s important to hear from the public and learn how natural hazards affect them.
“I can’t speak for a farmer in Bedford County,” Hitchcock said.
After gathering input from the public, she said the commission will create strategies to help localities prepare for and respond to natural disasters. The plan will also include education and outreach strategies to help residents understand what hazards their geographic area might contain, Hitchcock said.
The previous plan classifies severe winter storms, flooding and drought as the highest-ranking hazards to the region. Recommended and completed changes to water systems, clearing debris from Smith Mountain Lake, and assessing economic development of the James and Roanoke rivers also are included in the former plan.
A hazard mitigation plan is required by each locality if it wants to request pre-disaster funding from FEMA, she said. FEMA “awards planning and project grants and provides opportunities for raising public awareness about reducing future losses before disaster strikes,” according to its website.
The plan will include strategies to prepare for disasters such as floods, wildfires, drought, landslides or high winds, and how to deal with the aftermath, Sforza said. Localities can request FEMA funding for long-term construction projects, public education and any other initiatives related to the plan.
Chris Bruce, an all-hazards planner for region three at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said he’s been working with CVPDC to update its plan, which last was updated in 2013.
Region three includes Albemarle, Amherst, Appomattox, Augusta, Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Fluvanna, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nelson, Prince Edward and Rockingham counties, the cities of Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, and the towns of Farmville and South Boston.
Once the plan is complete, Bruce said he will help review and revise the plan before submitting it to FEMA. After the plan is approved, then the planning commission is able to request funds for projects related to strategies in the hazard mitigation plan.
He said most localities in Virginia have a pre-disaster plan.
“I don’t see any reason not to have one,” he said.
“We look at the history of hazards in the region ... and try to apply those lessons to central Virginia,” he said. Sforza and his team use data on land parcels in the area, mapping systems, floodplain maps and plans from the city and counties to update the plan.
“We see things like the changing temperatures, or changing precipitation patterns,” Sforza said.
Alongside gathering existing data, he said public input will inform what strategies are included in the plan. At least two community meetings are required for all hazard mitigation plans, he said.
Sforza’s office also is creating a website with interactive maps of the areas included in the Central Virginia planning district region, which should go live before the end of the year, he said.
The online survey is open until Dec. 13 and can be accessed at www.cvpdc.org. The public is asked to attend the Dec. 4 meeting from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Miller Center, 301 Grove St., to share feedback.
Olivia Johnson covers the city of Lynchburg for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5537.