As happened in 1888, most of West Virginia was covered by flood waters in 1985. And as before, the deluge was more like a flash flood than slow rising waters. The damage done in 1985 was, of course, much worse.
After any natural disaster, it is almost impossible to describe the devastation to man-made structures in relevant terms. The reason we lack the words is that Nature exerts forces that humankind cannot begin to fathom. When Nature goes on a rampage, we have but one option and that option is evacuation.
In November 1985, nobody thought that the Tygarts, Cheat, Potomac, and Greenbrier rivers would rise as fast and as high as they did. Nearly fifty people drowned as a result. Were it not for the fact that "higher ground" is always one step away in our state, the death toll could have been in the hundreds, if not thousands.
When I surveyed the flood area, the damage that concerned me the most was the wholesale loss of important bridges. Highways are nothing without bridges. With some two dozen main highway bridges completely washed away, it was obvious that recovery efforts would be much more difficult.
Although many towns and rural hamlets were initially isolated from outside help, that isolation did not stop the people who lived there from immediately beginning the clean-up. And that is not so surprising because people who live in the mountains or on farms are much more self-sufficient than their urban cousins. How many urbanites own a chain saw or a shovel?
If I had to characterize the West Virginians that I met during the flood recovery, I would call them "resilient." I remember a Pendleton County family who lost their house and possessions but had not left their land. They had covered an outbuilding with tarpaper and moved in rather than leave for a faraway motel. How many urbanites have outbuildings?
There are big differences between urban and rural areas when it comes to natural disasters. The first is that showboating reporters like Geraldo Rivera ignore rural disasters. The second is that urban disaster areas are almost totally dependent on government agencies for recovery efforts.
As we recently saw in New Orleans, the local, state, and federal governments were routinely criticized for mounting such a slow response. But if one were to be objective in his critique, it takes time (sometimes days) to get to the disaster area. Just because the rain stops doesn’t mean the surrounding floodwaters have started to recede.
In West Virginia, state agencies and National Guard units have earned pretty good marks for flood response over the years. There does tend to be criticism of the federal response but that is primarily due to the fact that people expect FEMA and the SBA to open their checkbooks wider than Congress has authorized.
In the end, government cannot make victims whole again. Government executives as well as grandstanding politicians should paint a realistic picture when it comes to disaster response. False hopes in a time of disaster are usually more devastating than the sense of hopelessness that victims experience on the day of the disaster.
In any natural disaster, a community’s self-sufficiency is its best hope for a speedy recovery. West Virginians were the model of resiliency in the aftermath of the 1985 flood. Not only did they help their neighbors by donating food, clothing and money, but they banded together to rebuild their communities.
I was very proud to be involved with relief and rebuilding efforts in 1985. Those of us at the Department of Highways did our best to get the roads and bridges rebuilt before winter set in. But in my heart, I know that our best would not have been good enough had the people in the flood area been as helpless as the city folk in New Orleans.
There’s something to be admired about people who can hold their own until the cavalry arrives. In recognizing the 20th anniversary of the great West Virginia flood, we should remember the resiliency of the survivors.
David G. Allen served as Assistant Commissioner of the WV Department of Highways, 1985-1986.