U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375
National Water Summary 1988-89--Floods and Droughts:

Floods and Droughts

     West Virginia has a climate that is primarily continental as a result of its inland location and weather systems that generally approach the State from the west or southwest (fig. 1). The climate of the eastern panhandle is modified by proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Summers are mild and winters are cold. Annual precipitation, which averages 42 inches statewide, is evenly distributed throughout the year. Storms that produce precipitation, and sometimes flooding, are cyclonic or convective. In general, widespread flooding is caused by frontal systems that contain cyclonic storms, and local flooding is caused by convective storms.

     The flood of April 4-5, 1977, in the southern part of West Virginia, was the result of a tropical maritime airmass that produced widespread rainfall and intense convective thunderstorms. At the time, it was the most destructive flood in the State's history. Rainfall estimates for the 4-day storm exceeded 15 inches along the West Virginia-Virginia border.

     The flood of November 4-5, 1985, replaced the 1977 flood as the most devastating in the State. Forty-seven lives were lost, thousands were left homeless, and about 500 bridges were destroyed. Rainfall estimates for the 2-day storm were as much as 20 inches along the Eastern Divide between the Ohio River and Potomac River drainages in eastern West Virginia and western Virginia.

     Droughts are less of a problem than floods; however, even short-term droughts can be detrimental to local agricultural communities and can limit surface-water supply. The drought of 1929-32 was the most severe in West Virginia's recorded history. Some streams that have drainage areas greater than 900 mi2 (square miles) had periods of zero flow during the summer and fall of 1930. At some precipitation stations, annual precipitation was about one-half of normal. Extended, severe droughts such as that of 1929-32 occur in West Virginia about every 25 years on average.

     Flood-plain development and management in West Virginia are under the jurisdiction of local governments. All eligible communities have the opportunity to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Flood-warning systems have been improved in the southern and northeastern sections of the State because of the recent record flooding in those areas. The flood-warning systems are operated by the local community, and overall forecasting is the responsibility of the National Weather Service,

     Responses to droughts are managed by local governments. Releases from reservoirs controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be used to augment low flow in several major streams.

Figure 1. Principal sources and patterns of delivery of moisture into West Virginia. Size of arrow implies relative contribution of moisture from source shown. (Sources: Moisture delivery data from Douglas R. dark and Andrea Lage, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.)


     The climate of West Virginia is affected primarily by three major airmasses--=tropical continental, which is hot, dry air from the Southwest and Mexico; polar continental, which is cold, dry air from Canadian and arctic areas; and tropical maritime, which is warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent subtropical waters. Most of the State is affected by tropical continental airmasses because of its inland location and orographic features. The climate in the eastern panhandle is controlled primarily by tropical maritime airmasses from the Gulf of Mexico and secondarily by moisture from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. As a result of these climate conditions summers are mild, and winters are cold throughout the State.

     In addition to the oceans, important moisture sources include local and upwind land surfaces, as well as lakes and reservoirs, from which moisture evaporates into the atmosphere. Typically, as a moisture-laden ocean airmass moves inland, it is modified to include some water that has been recycled one or more times through the land-vegetation-air interface. The State's principal moisture sources are shown in figure 1.

     Annual precipitation, based on the period of record 1951-80, ranges from 32.5 inches at Franklin to about 50 inches at Weston (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1985). Annual precipitation averages about 42 inches statewide; about 60 percent of the annual precipitation is received from March through August. July is the wettest month, and September through November are the driest.

     The climate also is affected by geography. In general, precipitation increases with increasing altitudes. Some areas at higher altitudes receive more than 100 inches of snowfall each year. However, the altitude-precipitation relation does not always apply. Some high-altitude areas receive less precipitation than lower altitude areas because of the rain-shadow effect created by the surrounding mountains. At Franklin, for example, which is in the eastern part of the State, the altitude (1,900 feet) is higher than at 75 percent of the precipitation-reporting stations statewide, yet it receives the least annual precipitation (32.5 inches). Franklin is in the rain shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and several other transverse ridges and in the snow shadow of mountains to the north and west of the State.

     In West Virginia, floods are caused by three general storm types (Doll and others, 1963): (1) thunderstorms during late afternoon and evening in summer, (2) frontal systems in winter or early spring, and (3) tropical cyclones, which include hurricanes and tropical storms, in late summer or early fall. In addition, rainfall combined with snowmelt may cause floods in early spring. Extreme flooding generally can be expected on small streams during the summer and on larger streams during late fall or winter. Intense thunderstorms are probably the most dangerous because they generally produce flash floods with little or no warning. Because the terrain of West Virginia consists of many small basins, much of the State is subject to this type of flood. The most devastating floods are caused by hurricanes or tropical storms. These storms generally are most intense on the eastern slopes of the Potomac River basin and the upper parts of the New River basin.

     West Virginia's annual frequency of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes is far less than any other State in the region. The complicated mountain terrain generally disrupts the circulation systems necessary for the formation of such storms. A notable exception on April 3, 1974, was a major tornado that formed at Meadow Bridge within an unusually strong convective system.

     Droughts are characterized by unusual northward expansion of the thermodynamically stable, warm, subtropical high-pressure systems that are in the midatmosphere during the summer. The presence of high-pressure systems greatly decreases afternoon thunderstorms. In addition, flow patterns associated with this type of system tend to keep frontal systems and the attendant precipitation to the north and west of the State.

Figure 2. Selected geographic features. West Virginia.


     Except for local record flooding in the mid- and late 1880's, streamflow conditions were not systematically documented until about 1930. The initiation of a comprehensive State and Federal streamflow-gaging program made possible the systematic collection of flood data statewide. The floods and droughts discussed herein are the most recent and most severe in West Virginia since data have been collected systematically. Streamflow data are collected, stored, and reported by water year (a water year is the 12-month period from October 1 through September 30 and is identified by the calendar year in which it ends). The most significant floods and droughts are listed chronologically in table 1; rivers, and cities are shown in figure 2. Not discussed in detail is the failure of a slag dam on February 26, 1972, that caused major flooding along a 15-mile section of Buffalo Creek and destroyed entire towns. More than 125 people were killed or were missing, and property damage was about $100 million (Davies and others, 1972, p. 1). This flooding is not shown on maps or graphs or discussed in later sections because it resulted from human activities, and the areal extent was small.

Table 1.   Chronology of major and other memorable floods and droughts in West Virginia, 1877-1988
[Recurrence interval: The average interval of time within which streamflow will be greater than a particular value for floods or less than a particular value for droughts. Symbol: >, greater than. Sources: Recurrence intervals calculated from U.S. Geological Survey data; other information from U.S. Geological Survey, State and local reports, and newspapers]
Flood or
Date Area affected
(fig. 2)
Flood 1877-88 Potomac and Monongahela River basins.
Major floods outside the period of record; areal extent unknown.
Flood 1912 Big Sandy Creek and Tygart Valley River.
25 to >50
Largest discharge known on Big Sandy Creek within period of record.
Flood 1918 Greenbrier and Cheat Rivers
Second largest discharge on Greenbrier River in more than 90 years.
Drought 1929-32 Statewide
Most severe in State's history; more than 50 percent of agricultural production lost.
Flood 1932 Gauley, Greenbrier, and Tygart Valley Rivers.
Storm produced record discharge on Gauley River, Williams River, and headwaters of Greenbrier River.
Flood Mar. 9-22, 1936 Potomac River basin and Cheat River.
25 to >100
Regional; 10-20 inches of rain in snow-covered northern part of State.
Drought 1940-42 Regional drought
Severe water shortages for small communities throughout the State.
Flood 1949 Potomac River basin
Flash flooding in South Branch Potomac River basin; 50 homes destroyed. Lives lost, 9; damage, $2.5 million.
Flood June 25, 1950 West Fork River, Middle Island Creek, and Little Kanawha River.
25 to >50
Locally intense storm produced small-stream flooding in north-central part of State. Minor damage.
Drought 1952-54 Statewide
10 to >25
Regional drought; most severe in western and northern areas of State.
Flood Mar. 6-19, 1963 Tug Fork, Guyandotte, Big Sandy, Little Kanawha, Cheat, and Greenbrier River basins.
25 to 100
Three floods. More than 5,000 people homeless. Lives lost, 7; damage, $10 million in 22-county disaster area.
Drought 1963-70 Statewide
Regional. Longest severe drought in history of region.
Flood Mar. 7, 1967 Kanawha and Monongahela River basins.
25 to >50
About 5 inches of rainfall in 3 days, augmented by snowmelt. Damage, $16 million.
Flood Feb. 26, 1972 Buffalo Creek
Dam failure. About 125 people killed or missing; damage, $100 million.
Flood Apr. 4-5, 1977 Tug Fork and Guyandotte River.
25 to >100
Damage, $60 million.
Flood 1980 Lost and Little Grave Creeks
Widespread thunderstorms created small-stream flooding that had recurrence intervals exceeding 100 years.
Flood 1984 Tug Fork and Guyandotte River.
25 to >50
Second major flood in southern West Virginia within 10 years.
Flood Nov. 4-5, 1985 North-central and eastern areas of State.
25 to >100
Worst flood in West Virginia history. Deaths, 47; damage, $500 million.
Drought 1987-88 Statewide
Affected the entire $300-million agriculture industry.

Figure 3. Areal extent of major floods with a recurrence interval of 25 years or more in West Virginia, and annual peak discharge for selected sites, water years 1875-1988. (Source: Data from U.S. Geological Survey files.)

Figure 4. Areal extent of major droughts with a recurrence interval of 10 years or more in West Virginia, and annual departure from average stream discharge for selected sites, water years 1896-1988. (Source: Data from U.S. Geological Survey files.)


     Peak-discharge data from 105 gaging stations were used to determine the areal extent and relative magnitude of five major floods that have occurred in West Virginia. The extent and severity of these five floods, along with annual peak-discharge data for six streamflow-gaging stations are shown in figure 3. The six stations have long continuous records, are on unregulated streams, and represent hydrologic conditions in the major physiographic provinces (fig. 1) of the State.

     Major floods in West Virginia have occurred as a result of several storm types. Of the five selected for discussion, four were caused by winter-spring storms during March and April, and one was caused by a storm resulting from the remnants of a November hurricane.

     During March 9-22, 1936, four separate cyclonic storms passed over the Northeastern United States. At some sites, the resultant flood discharges had three or more peaks, and later flood peaks were superimposed on earlier flood peaks. Peak discharges that occurred during the flood were record maximums in the Potomac and lower Monongahela River basins. At some gaging stations in the eastern panhandle, such as the Cacapon River near Great Cacapon (fig. 3, site 2), the 1936 flood crests are still the maximum of record, whereas at other gaging stations, such as the South Branch Potomac River near Springfield (site 1), the flood crests of 1936 have since been exceeded by the record 1985 flood.

     During March 4-19, 1963, three frontal systems moved through the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to West Virginia. Each was associated with warm, moist air overriding cooler air at the surface and warm advection from the Gulf of Mexico. Warm rain from the first storm of March 4-6 fell on a thick snowpack and caused minor flooding in southern West Virginia. The rain also created antecedent conditions that enhanced maximum runoff from later storms. The other two floods resulted from slow-moving low-pressure systems during March 10-12 and 16-19. The second storm produced record flooding on streams in southern West Virginia. Floods in the Guyandotte and Big Sandy River basins were the most severe since at least 1915. The third storm prolonged the previous flooding and produced large quantities of runoff in central and northern West Virginia. Near-record flooding occurred in the Little Kanawha, Cheat, and Greenbrier River basins, where 22 counties were declared disaster areas. The estimated property damage was about $10 million (Barnes, 1964, p. 19).

     In early March 1967, a 3-day rainfall of 4-5 inches in southern, central, and northern West Virginia caused widespread flooding on many streams. Runoff combined with snowmelt caused the worst flooding since 1888 in northern West Virginia along the West Fork River, which rose 8 feet above flood stage. The 3-day storm also produced record runoff volume along streams in southern West Virginia. In the Coal River basin, streams rose 30 feet, and overbank flooding of 15 feet inundated many areas. Of the State's 55 counties, 29 were declared disaster areas. The estimated damage was $16 million (National Weather Service, written commun., 1988).

     Rainfall was widespread and intense over southern West Virginia during April 2-5, 1977. Rainfall quantities ranged from about 4 inches at a few locations to 15.5 inches at Jolo within 30 hours. This rainfall was more than twice the rainfall that would be expected from a storm having a recurrence interval of 100 years.

     Flood peaks during April 4-5, 1977, along the Tug Fork and Guyandotte Rivers exceeded all known discharges. Communities along the Tug Fork from Welch to Fort Gay were inundated by 20-25 feet of water. The small communities of Matewan, Thacker, and Lobata were completely inundated. On the Tug Fork near Litwar, the peak stage exceeded the previous highest stage by about 6 feet, and the discharge was 54,500 ft3/s (cubic feet per second). At Williamson and Kermit, the peak discharges of 94,000 and 104,000 ft3/s, respectively, were the largest since at least 1926. A floodwall that protects Williamson to a stage of about 44 feet was overtopped by more than 8 feet. The flood had a unit runoff of more than 100 cubic feet per second per square mile on drainage areas of about 1,000 mi2 and had a recurrence interval of greater than 100 years. This flood became a benchmark flood in southern West Virginia, with damage of $60 million (Runner and Chin, 1980, p. 31).

     The flood of November 4-5,1985 (water year 1986), in northern and eastern West Virginia may have been the most destructive flood on some streams in the past 2,000 years, based on archeological evidence (Morgantown Dominion Post, December 27, 1985). The remnants of Hurricane Juan, an intense, slow-moving, upper level, low-pressure trough moving eastward over the Ohio Valley, a high-pressure ridge over the eastern seaboard, and a low-level jetstream carrying large quantities of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico combined to form a storm that devastated sections of West Virginia. Mountainous areas along the Eastern Divide between the Ohio River drainage and the South Branch Potomac River drainage received the most rainfall. Quantities ranged from 12 to 20 inches, and possibly even greater quantities fell along mountain ridges.

     Flood peaks in the Cheat (fig. 3, site 3), Elk, Greenbrier (site 5), Tygart Valley, Little Kanawha, and South Branch Potomac River (site 1) basins were the greatest ever recorded. The discharge having a 100-year recurrence interval was exceeded at 20 sites. On the Little Kanawha River at Glenville, where 55 percent of the 386-mi2 drainage area has been regulated since 1979, the river crested at 36.5 feet--2 feet higher than any peak since 1915.

     The flood left about 9,000 homes either destroyed or severely damaged. More than 500 bridges were damaged or washed away, and sections of major highways were eroded. Agricultural losses in the South Branch Potomac River basin were extensive. Thousands of chickens and turkeys and hundreds of cattle were lost. Prime farmland along the flood plain was eroded or left as acres of cobbles that could not be farmed without extensive repairs. Forty-seven deaths were reported, and property damage was estimated at $500 million in the 29 counties that were declared disaster areas (Teets and Young, 1987, p. 97).


     A drought generally can be described as an extended period of dry weather. Periods of less than average precipitation or streamflow, which are measurable, can vary substantially in duration, severity, and areal extent. This variability makes quantitative analysis difficult. Dry periods may affect a region, a State, or a locality, may last for several years or only for a few months, and may be unnoticed outside the local area.

     The duration, extent, and severity of four major droughts in West Virginia are shown in figure 4. The drought analysis was based on cumulative departures from average streamflow at selected gaging stations. The annual-departure graphs depict years in which streamflow was greater than average or less than average. Droughts of measurable significance and duration are evident for 1929-32, 1940-42, 1952-54, and 1963-70.

     The drought of 1929-32, which extended over much of the United States, was the most severe in West Virginia history and had a recurrence interval that exceeded 25 years statewide. Streamflows at some gaging stations for that time remained the minimum for the period of record as of 1989, and some streams draining more than 900 mi2 had periods of zero flow during the drought. Rainfall totals for 1929-32 were the minimum of record dating back to the late 1800's; precipitation was less than average for 16 consecutive months during 1930-31. The drought was accompanied by temperatures that reached 112 °F (degrees Fahrenheit) in August at several locations. Daily air temperatures of about 95 °F remain the hottest on record for spring and early summer. Crop yields in 1930 were only 37 percent of normal, the smallest yield for any of the 27 States affected by the drought (Hoyt, 1936, p. 8).

     In many instances, municipal water supplies were critically short. At Charleston, streamflow in the Elk River was inadequate to meet the city's needs during the 1930's and also was insufficient to prevent the Kanawha River, to which the Elk River is tributary, from backing polluted water over the municipal intakes. In northern West Virginia, small water-supply reservoirs were depleted, and public consumption was decreased from 3 to 1.5 million gallons per day. Tygart Valley River at Elkins became dry; as a result, a pipeline was laid through a railway tunnel to transport water from Shavers Fork.

     The drought of 1940-42, although statewide in extent, was not as devastating as the drought of 1929-32. In many areas of the State, however, the duration of moisture deficiency exceeded that in 1929-32. The recurrence interval for this drought exceeded 25 years statewide (fig. 4).

     The drought of 1952-54 was most severe in the western and northern of West Virginia (fig. 4). On the basis of streamflow deficits at gaging stations in these areas, the drought generally had a recurrence interval that exceeded 25 years. In the mountainous southern and eastern parts of the State, streamflow was only slightly less than normal, and the drought recurrence interval was about 10 years.

     The drought of 1963-70 affected the entire Northeastern United States and began in some States in early 1960. When the drought finally ended, it had been the longest in the history of the region. In West Virginia, the duration of the drought generally exceeded 7 years, which was the longest moisture-deficient period on record at most sites. The drought affected the entire State and had a recurrence interval that exceeded 25 years. Streamflow was less than normal at many gaging stations beginning in 1961 and by the mid-1960's had reached record minimums. In the eastern panhandle, streamflows reached record lows in 1966 at several sites on the Cacapon River (fig. 4, site 2) and the South Fork South Branch Potomac River. By the end of 1965, ground-water levels also had registered new record lows in the eastern panhandle.

Figure 5. Cumulative departures from normal monthly mean stream discharge for the Kanawha River at Kanawha Falls, West Virginia. The graph shows the results of moisture deficiency on streamflows during 1910-70.

     The drought of 1987-88 affected the entire State. As a result of record-breaking heat and the least rainfall in decades, many agricultural and forestry crops withered and died. The entire $300-million agriculture industry in West Virginia was adversely affected. The drought was of short duration and was broken by record rainfall during the spring and summer of 1989.

     The long-term departure from normal monthly mean discharge of the Kanawha River at Kanawha Falls is shown in figure 5. Upstream, the basin encompasses 8,371 mi2 in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia and contains three major reservoirs that were placed in operation in 1939, 1949, and 1966 to maintain adequate streamflow. The daily discharge record for the gaging station at Kanawha Falls spans more than 100 years. Analysis of these records indicates that the four selected droughts were regional in nature and were the most severe moisture-deficiency periods during 1910-70.


     Flood-Plain Management.--Regulation of flood-plain development in West Virginia is the responsibility of local governments. Statutes do not authorize direct State regulation of flood-plain areas, nor does the State require that local governments adopt and administer such regulations. Almost 60 percent of 265 communities that have identified flood-hazard areas, however, have enacted local flood-plain management regulations to enable their participation in the National Flood Insurance Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 210 municipalities and all 55 counties participate in this program. All major flood-hazard areas in the State have been identified and studied.

     The West Virginia Department of Emergency Services is the primary agency that provides flood information and oversees flood-plain management in the State. The Department coordinates the National Flood Insurance Program in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

     Flood-Warning Systems.--The National Weather Service has the responsibility of flood forecasting and maintaining a flood-warning system. An updated flood-warning system has been put into operation in response to the devastating floods in 1977 and 1984 in southern West Virginia and in 1985 in the northern and eastern parts of the State. The National Weather Service now operates more than 220 automated precipitation gages in an Integrated Flood Warning System. Most of the new gages are in the headwaters of the Tug Fork, Cheat, and Tygart Valley Rivers.

     Water-Use Management During Droughts.--Management of surface-water resources in West Virginia during droughts is the responsibility of public and private agencies. Flow is regulated for navigation, low-flow augmentation, hydroelectric-power generation, and recreation on several streams. State organizations, such as the Water Resources Board; the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Water Resources; and the State Department of Health implement most of the regulatory, planning, and research programs for the protection and management of surface water. The Division of Water Resources administers and enforces all laws relating to the conservation, development, protection, and use of the water resources of the State.


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  • ______1979, Flood of April 1977 on the Tug Fork, Matewan to Williamson, West Virginia and Kentucky: U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Investigations Atlas HA-588, scale 1:12,000.
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  • ______1987, Killing waters II--West Virginia's struggle to recover: Terra Alta, W. Va., C.R. Publications, Inc., 128 p.
  • U.S. Geological Survey, 1986, National water summary 1985-Hydrologic events and surface-water resources: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2300, 506 p.
  • ______1990, National water summary 1987-Hydrologic events and water supply and use: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2350, 553 p.

Prepared by Gerald S. Runner, U.S. Geological Survey; "General Climatology" section by Patrick J. Michaels, University of Virginia

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: District Chief, U.S. Geological Survey, 603 Morris Street, Charleston, WV 25301

U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375, p. 559-566