When floods devastated wide areas of West Virgina and eastern Kentucky in April, they left a trail of anger and frustration with federal disaster recovery efforts.
In West Virginia alone a month after the floodwaters receded , almost 2,100 families were still homeless, a few sleeping unprotected under the open sky: Local officials complained of bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency. And the Chambers of Commerce in Williamson, W.VA., a group not given to radical outburstven to radical outburst s, threatened suit against the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (FDAA).$ ut there is little of that anger here six weeks a flood hit this old steelmaking center, killing at least 72 persons. "The feds in all the agencies have been nothing but super, super," declares Johnstown Mayor Herbert pfuhl Jr. in a statement echoed by many flood victims.
The words are welcome ones for the fragmented and frequently maligned federal disaster recovery apparatus, which has mushroom in the last decade liitle noticed. Already this year, the government has shelled out $694.4 million, or almost $170 million more than the entire FBI budget, on recovery efforts from 14 major disasters.
Hundreds of disaster victims have been housed in emergency trailers provided free by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Thousands have received low interest loans from the Small Business Administration to rebuild homes anf businesses. And millions have been moved out to local and state governments to clean up debris and restore buildings, sewer and water systems and roads.
But "despite the growing federal involvement and dollar commitment, criticism is widespread," a recent White House breifing paper stated. Various agencies have been widely attacked for insufficient coordination, "weak management, excessive paper-work requirements for those seeking assistance, and inconsistent policy guidelines," it said.
Nowhere was the criticism more widespread than last spring along the Tug River Valley that separates Kentucky and West Virginia. Although the flood that hit it and other valleys left 18,000 families homeless and destroyed 1,600 businesses in four, Appalachian states, the White House work three full days to declare a disaster area, making it eligible for federal help.
When federal help came, it moved at a snail's pace, hamstrung big mountainous terrain and what local officials saw as bureaucratic arrogance and bumbling. Almost four weeks after the flood, only 48 of the 2,800 families in the Tug River Vally had been housed in emergency trailers. At one point local officials became so frustrated that they threatened HUD officials with arrest to get them to come to a meeting.
The contrast in Johnstown could hardly be more striking.
Within 26 hours after a late night downpour covered this "flood-free" city with six to eight feet of water, President Carter had declared it a disaster area and federal recovery officials were on the scene. Greg Schneiders, Carter's special envoy on disaster assistance, made frequent appearances here in the days that followed.
Subtly, he let federal officials know they were on the spot. "The main message the President sent to me was we want cooperation," Schneiders said later. "There was certainly a great incentive for everyone because they knew the President was personally interested and was watching."
By most accounts, the recovery went as smoothly as could be expected, according to interviews with flood victims and state and local officials. One-stop centers were set up near worst hit areas to dispose assistance information from government and private agencies. Meetings were held with victims. Federal, state and local officials met daily to coordinate efforts.
"The federal government sent in the first team this time around. They went across the country and brought their best people in," said Pennsylvania civil defense director Oran Henderson, who retired as an Army colonel after being acquitted of coverup charges in the Vietnam Mylai massacre case. "We had decision makers on the scene to resolve issues before they became problems. They didn't have to run back to Washington all the time. They were extremely sensitive about doing a good job."
"The attitude among state and federal was very good," said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). "I saw very little that I could criticize."
Thomas P. Dunne, FDAA administrator blames criticisms his agency received in the Appalachian flood recovery effort on bad public relations and "a handful of people who made a great deal of noise."
"If I could point to any difference in the way we handled the two floods, it would be we're doing a better job of explaining the process to the people" in Johnstown, he said in an interview. Also, he said. "As a rule, those cities and towns that were well managed before a disaster will perform well after they've had disaster."
People are becoming ever more demanding after a calamity, said Dunne whose agency is charged with coordinating federal disaster recovery efforts. "The level of expectations is rising than our ability to deliver . . . Also, people would like not to have to fill out forms."
Although the Johnstown and Appalachian floods were similar in many respects a number of elements made the one here easier to deal with. The terrain is less rugged. Emergency housing was available in college dormitories. And flood insurance coverage was much widespread, easing the trauma for many victims.
Perhaps more important, there was a greater reservoir of talent to call upon. Many of the National Guardsmen, civil defense, volunteer and state and federal workers here had gone through the Hurricane Agnes flood in Wilkes-Barre in 1972. Having dealt with one major catastrophe, they were prepared to cope with another. The result, says Mayor Pfuhl: "We've been three weeks ahead of where we thought we'd be, almost from the start."
The storefronts and T-shirts here are optimistic: We're wet, but not washed up." "Everything is wet and muddy but our spirits." "Our Moms and Dads came back in 1936. We can come back in 1977 - a reference to the last Johnstwon flood.
Behind them there's a quiet uneasiness. Bethlehem Steel, the area's largest employer, is trimming its workforce by 4000. Penn Traffic, the city's oldest department store, is closing its downtown outlet, cutting off another 400 jobs. Apparently unsure about their future, only 177 of 1,167 businessmen who picked up applications for low-interest SBA loans have actually applied.
Mathew Pesarchic, a 21-year-old steel worker was out of town vacationing when Laurel Run Creek swept away the home he lived in, killing four persons in it.
"The whole house, everything washed away. My car, and everything else," he said, "I lost everything I had, and now I've lost my job too."