By Jody Brumage
“The destruction from this storm goes beyond anything we’ve known in recent years. It will test the resources of all volunteer organizations, private sector help, and state, local, and federal governments.” President George H.W. Bush delivered these grave remarks in the White House briefing room on August 26, 1992 as the nation was realizing the horrific damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew. Florida and Louisiana were among the hardest hit areas. Two days prior to his statement to the press, President Bush toured Florida. He planned to visit Louisiana in the next few days to assess damages there too. The recovery effort that lay ahead was a daunting one as communities dealt with the loss of human lives and billions of dollars in damage.
The powerful memories of these historic floods, bolstered by the ongoing recovery work, led West Virginians to contact their congressional representatives to offer help in any way they could. In the days following the storm, Senator Byrd’s office received dozens of calls and letters from ambulance and fire companies, community service organizations, and businesses from around the state wishing to send supplies, equipment, and volunteers to Florida and Louisiana to aid in the recovery effort. Senator Byrd’s staff dove into the complicated bureaucratic network of disaster recovery to assess how these resources could best be used, working with FEMA representatives as well as state officials in the affected areas.
In the months after Hurricane Andrew swept across the southeastern United States, another unfortunate parallel to the West Virginia floods emerged, delays in the delivery of disaster relief. In 1985 and 86, Senator Byrd and his colleagues in Congress employed every means necessary, including loopholes to speed recovery resources to the state. A provision had to be made to exempt West Virginia from matching funds requirements that it could not afford, allow Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) support to be released the state. In the coming years, poor planning and misinformation regarding flood insurance programs caused significant controversy in some of the hardest-hit areas. Similarly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, criticism of FEMA for being too slow to respond was expressed in editorials and public statements across the country, including in several major West Virginia papers.
The lessons of the West Virginia floods and Hurricane Andrew have had a profound impact on the relief policy and public response to natural disasters. In the case of Florida where Hurricane Andrew produced its most severe damage, the state has passed numerous laws and instituted drills for emergency evacuations and recovery. These efforts have produced greater public awareness and, in the case of subsequent hurricanes, more compliance to follow warnings and safety orders. In West Virginia, the floods of 1985 led to massive infrastructure improvements, many supported by Senator Byrd to building protection walls and levees as well as early warning systems. However, the need for continued review and improvement of disaster relief policy continues. In the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2017 hurricane season, similar criticisms continue to be raised about the expediency of aid and the amount of resources provided for communities impacted by natural disasters. Another element of these stories has also remained true, that in the face of major disasters, people join their efforts and volunteer to support communities where aid is most needed, just as West Virginian’s did for the victims of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.