On the morning of January 26, 1978, after returning to Washington D.C. after a tour of flood-ravaged towns in the Tug Fork Valley, Senator Byrd’s office sent a telegram to state agencies notifying them that President Carter had been briefed on the disaster and that assistance was being sought immediately. This message was less than reassuring to its recipients who had heard similar promises frequently over the past several years. The January 1978 flood was the tenth major disaster to impact the Tug Fork region in a decade. The previous year, the worst of these floods, with waters rising in excess of 56 feet, struck the valley in April. For residents in the Tug Fork, promises of “immediate action” were appreciated, but permanent flood control infrastructure in the valley was greatly needed.
To make matters worse, the Tug Fork is highly-prone to devastating flooding. The consequences of extractive industries like coal mining and timbering weakened topsoil layers, leading to greater amounts of runoff when heavy rains soak the region. Between 1946 and 1978, there were 24 major floods in the region, an average of one every 1.3 years. Four of these floods had topped out over 40 feet. Cities and towns in the Tug Fork Valley, built on the few level places available, were all located along the river, making them extremely-susceptible to significant damage from these floods.
However, the residents of the Tug Fork Valley needed more than temporary assistance to recover from the repeated flooding disasters. Senators Randolph and Byrd and Congressman Rahall determined to pursue legislation that would provide funding to build a flood control system in the valley. However, the effort faced a major legal hurdle: the state would need to match the capital expenses for the project dollar-for-dollar in economic benefits. West Virginia had already maxed-out the resources available for flood response when another flood struck the Tug Fork Valley in January of 1978. For the next several years, the promise of flood control for the residents of Tug Fork Valley was an anything but certain.