Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.
The Greater Kanawha Valley is experiencing the effects of its most catastrophic event in several generations. In fact, no manmade disaster in the state of West Virginia has directly affected so many people for so long a duration.
The public's confidence in industry, the state and federal regulatory system, as well as the health and safety of its basic water infrastructure is perhaps at an all-time low. As difficult as the current situation is, the Kanawha Valley and the counties surrounding it will survive and gradually regain their confidence and support for its key industries, public utilities and the state and federal regulatory systems. How quickly this happens and how the community responds will, to a significant degree, determine its "Map to Prosperity."
Everyone is mad and looking to place the blame. Unfortunately, there is plenty of blame to go around. Over time, the damages will be quantified and the system's failures clearly articulated. The governor and the Legislature will be working diligently to immediately address regulatory shortcomings. The Chemical Safety Board will do a thorough study of the disaster and provide recommendations for assuring such a disaster does not happen again. Congress will review the situation and tighten national regulatory shortcomings. The federal prosecutor will carefully investigate the events leading up to the disaster and take appropriate action. The state court system will be actively involved in defining damages to individuals and businesses. All of this will take time, but it will surely happen.
What is not so clear is the response of the Kanawha Valley's leadership and its citizens. The region is poised for significant growth in its chemical and manufacturing industries. This catastrophic event must not derail the potential bright future ahead. As Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, "when going through hell, keep going." We, as the broadly defined community, must find ways to use this disaster as a way to make us stronger. We must show the nation that we can learn from this crisis and make a better community. Among other things, we must show the nation how to better protect its municipal water systems. We must show that the environmental, regulatory and industrial communities can come together with a common purpose in a time of crisis. Working together, and not against each other, is the key. Focusing on who is at fault is not the answer, but finding common solutions should be the goal.
On a smaller scale, the Kanawha Valley's situation is not dissimilar to the BP oil spill along the Gulf Coast, where industry, the regulatory system and the initial disaster response all were found to be grossly inadequate. This can be a good starting point on how the community needs to respond. In fact, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau and Yeager Airport already have begun to look at how we, as a community, need to proceed. They are analyzing the "Road to Recovery: A Plan to Accelerate Economic Recovery in the Gulf Coast and Future Disaster Areas" as a model to start their planning process. This is just the kind of proactive leadership that is needed.
We need Congress to fully recognize the unprecedented nature of this disaster and fund a public health study on its potential ramifications for West Virginia and to use this study as a guidepost to prevent similar occurrences elsewhere. We must seek funds to help rebuild the positive marketing brand the region was well on its way to accomplishing. Rather than crying in our beer, we need to start immediately on charting our path to recovery, our "Map to Prosperity," so to speak. This can be done in a parallel path to the myriad details surrounding the legislative and regulatory response to the disaster.
We have a crisis before us. West Virginia has always responded well in crisis situations. The opportunities to get it right have never been so great. This disaster has ramifications statewide, as well as nationally. We must use this opportunity to show the nation that West Virginia knows how to do it right. We are strong and resilient. We can take this crisis and turn it to our advantage. Nothing is more vital to future growth and development than clean air and clean water. We must use this disaster as a foundational building block to position our community, region and state to take control of our future and proactively define who and what we want to become. We must move past the victim mentality. We must come to see ourselves as the victors over daunting challenges. We must remember that how we recover from this disaster will be part of how we define ourselves in the future. Our "Map to Prosperity" is immediately before us.