Click here to read the first part of this blog series on the Tug Fork Valley Floods.
Hundreds of residents of the Tug Fork Valley converged on Washington DC in April 1978. Tired of unfulfilled promises of federal assistance for flood control, they marched to the Capitol to demand that Congress appropriate funding for infrastructure that could tame the Tug Fork River and lessen the impact of future floods. They were addressed by members of their congressional delegation, including Senators Jennings Randolph, Robert C. Byrd, and Congressman Nick Joe Rahall.
The delegation put together a package of legislative proposals, including putting Tug Fork communities under the National Flood Insurance Program, opening the possibility for business owners to secure loans for rebuilding and protecting their shops. The senators and congressman also called for the appropriation of money to build flood control infrastructure around some of the valley’s most critically-threatened communities. The problem with this proposal was that the Tug Fork Valley could not meet the required cost-benefit ratio mandated for flood control projects. The only way to avoid this obstacle was to gain enough Senate support for the amendment to waive the rule.
Senators Randolph and Byrd set to work to gain more support for the Tug Fork Valley project. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Senator Randolph began a series of hearings on the proposal. One of those to testify during the hearings was Senator Byrd who called on the committee to approve the project and funding, bringing it to a full Senate vote. Opponents of the project raised questions over the effectiveness of the proposed flood walls and diversion channels when the amendment did not seriously address the consequences of the extractive industries in the region the contributed to the frequency and severity of flooding. These questions were difficult to answer, an example of the larger paradox often faced by West Virginia's congressional representatives caught between the state’s industrial base and its environmental and human impacts.
On September 9, 1980, Senators Byrd and Randolph again introduced their amendment on the Senate Floor. In his defense of the measure, Byrd declared “four times the U.S. Senate has responded to my plea, along with the requests of my colleague, Senator Randolph, and has provided authorization for extensive flood relief…while I have kept my pledge, the hopes of these people remain unfulfilled.” Randolph added “no matter how badly needed this legislation is, it still has not become law…the people of the Tug Fork Valley have come so close, yet continue to be so far away from the safety and security that all American’s deserve.” These impassioned statements resulted in yet another successful Senate vote in favor of the amendment. Once in the House of Representatives, the amendment was approved in the interest of not jeopardizing the overall $12 billion Energy and Water Appropriations Bill to which it was attached. With the appropriations now available, work began on the long-awaited flood control system in the Tug Fork Valley.
In the years since work began on the various components of the massive project, the flood control system has helped to cut-down the frequency and severity of disastrous flooding in the region. As recently as February, the flood wall around the city of Williamson protected its residents from severe damage after the Tug Fork swelled to 36 feet following heavy rains. When staff from the Byrd Center visited Williamson last year with our traveling exhibit, Robert C. Byrd: Senator, Statesman, West Virginian, city residents recalled the 77/78 floods and the sense of safety afforded by the massive flood wall that now wraps around two sides of the city’s downtown.