By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
MARLINTON, W.Va. (AP) People in Marlinton tell time in terms of the floods that have ravaged this small town in ’96, ’85, and 11 other less severe floods.
“These people don’t deserve to live with that kind of fear,” said Mayor Dotty Kellison, pointing to photographs of the 1985 flood in her office. That year, the river breach was more than a mile wide, causing $70 million in damage to the area.
If a $1.5 million line-item in Gov. Joe Manchin’s proposed budget survives the legislative session’s dollar-grabbing gauntlet, folks in this community of approximately 1,000 could be one step closer to eliminating the perennial threat of the Greenbrier River, the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi.
The funding would mark the first time the state has held up its end of the bargain to fund 12.3 percent — or $11.5 million — of the $93.5 million project, said Karen Miller, the flood wall’s project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The project first underwent a feasibility study in 1999, and could take seven years to complete the 11-ft.-high (3.3 m) flood wall along 11,000 ft. (3,352.8 m) of the Marlinton-side of the river, and 5,900 ft. (1,798 m) on the other, Miller said. A new bridge also would have to be built.
“In years past, we’d received a letter of intent from Governor Wise, but that is nonbinding and the funding never came through,” Miller said. A similar letter was sent by Manchin, but his proposed allocation represents the closest thing to actually committing state funding to the project.
The federal government has agreed to pay more than 87 percent of the cost, but the state must take responsibility for the local share of costs, said Marlinton Town Recorder Robin Mutscheller, who heads the project.
“If the funds stay intact, the Corps of Engineers could begin with real estate acquisition along the river, construction of an engineer’s office, all the things that have to happen in the first phase of the project,” Mutscheller said.
Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick said the Legislature wanted to make sure the project moves forward.
“It’s a huge project for Marlinton, obviously, but also for West Virginia,” said Helmick, a Democrat whose district includes the city.
Because the Corps won’t build a dam on the Greenbrier River, flood walls are the only option for towns like Marlinton, Helmick said.
Manchin Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Martin represented the area while in the House of Delegates, and believed the Legislature would approve the governor’s request.
“We believe that it is a project that is necessary,” Martin said. “It’s been recommended by the proper federal authorities, and it has been repeatedly requested by the community.”
He also noted that this route was chosen over relocating that portion of the town that is prone to flooding.
“It’s now time to move ahead with the project,” Martin said.
Only 5 percent of the $11.5 million needs to be provided in cash by the state, Miller said. Marlinton will receive credit for making public land available for the project.
However, to be in compliance with the federal funding plan, the state must “have a financing plan and firm commitment for not only ’08 but all of the funds for the future of this project.”
Marlinton residents, as always, are hopeful that legislators will come through. Along with the promise of safety, Mutscheller estimated the construction would create approximately 200 jobs.
But mostly, the project will help avoid reliving tragedies of the past.
Mutscheller remembered the tears of a neighbor who lost her elderly husband during the 1985 flood. She’s haunted by the story of a woman who spent a long night on top of her refrigerator, the highest place she could climb in time.
“I know our community is excited for this funding, and I’m extremely excited. I’ve lived through three floods,” Mutscheller said. “I’m working so hard to make this project work. We need it to work.”
(Associated Press writers Lawrence Messina and Tom Breen contributed to this report.)