40th Anniversary: Emergency Management in Virginia

July 21, 2013  //  

VDEM 40th Anniversary

Governor Bob McDonnell proclaimed July 21 – 27, 2013,  as Emergency Management Week, a nod to the profession’s 40th anniversary.

In July 1973, and largely as a result of the devastation of Hurricane Camille in 1969, the Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Act established the Virginia Office of Emergency Services.  The new agency’s purpose was to assist in protecting the Commonwealth and its residents from the effects of both natural and human-caused disasters.

In its infancy, emergency management taught citizens about how to respond to an atomic bomb, drilling “Duck and Cover” into school children and adults alike.  Since then, the field has evolved into a profession that includes extensive planning, preparing, responding to, recovering from and mitigating all types of emergencies and hazards.

Duck and Cover                    Fallout Shelter

Today, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management works with local, state and federal agencies and voluntary organizations to provide resources during emergencies.  The agency’s mission is to protect the lives and property of Virginia’s citizens from emergencies and disasters by coordinating the state’s emergency preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery efforts.

Milestones in Virginia Emergency Management

  • February 1942 – The Virginia General Assembly created the Office of Civilian Defense to protect citizens against enemy attack.  Its emphasis was on coastal areas and military centers. The office was abolished after World War II ended.
  • 1950 – The office was re-established in response to the atomic age and the Cold War.  A bomb shelter was built for the governor at Virginia State Police headquarters in Chesterfield County.  Every city and many counties maintained stocked fallout shelters complete with medical supplies.
  • 1969 – The remnants of Hurricane Camille, centered in Nelson County, killed more than 150 people and caused $113 million in damages.  Due to Camille, state officials began to shift the focus of emergency services from nuclear disaster to other types of natural and human-caused disasters.

First Responders - Hurricane Camille

First responders and emergency managers worked to coordinate recovery from Hurricane Camille in Nelson County in 1969.

  • June 1972 – Tropical Storm Agnes was just a depression when it hit Virginia, but it killed 16 people and caused more than $222 million in damages.
  • July 1973 – Governor Linwood Holton signed the Emergency Services and Disaster Act.  It replaced the Office of Civil Defense with the Office of Emergency Services, led by a state coordinator of civil defense, appointed by the governor.  Agency staffing expanded from about 24 to 40, including training, communications, radiological monitoring, planning, public information, regional staff, recovery officers and administrative staff.
  • 1974 – President Richard Nixon signed the Disaster Relief Act, which created a national emergency management framework and established the process of presidential disaster declarations.  At that time, more than 100 federal agencies were involved in emergency response, recovery, planning and mitigation.
  • 1976 – During the oil embargo, the Office of Emergency Services absorbed the governor’s Energy Office and added about 20 people to the agency. In 1978, the agency’s name was changed to the Office of Emergency and Energy Services.

Cars lined up in alexandria in June 1979 to buy gas

Dozens of cars lined up in Alexandria in June 1979 to buy gas, a typical scene during the national oil crisis.

  • 1979 – President Jimmy Carter merged several federal agencies (including the Federal Insurance Agency, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Civil Preparedness Agency and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration) to create the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • 1983 – The first FEMA-graded nuclear power plant exercise took place. In addition, a nine-month tire fire began in a Winchester storage facility in October and 7 million tires burned, making it one of the world’s worst tire fires.
  • Election Day 1985 – The flood of record on the Roanoke River system affected large portions of central and western Virginia.  Flooding resulted from a slow-moving low-pressure system from the remnants of Hurricane Juan.

Flash Flooding inundated downtown Roanoke
Flash flooding inundated downtown Roanoke in early November 1985. 

  • 1985 – Energy services activities were transferred to the new Department of Mines, Minerals & Energy, and the Office of Emergency and Energy Services became the Department of Emergency Services.
  • 1989 – The federal Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) became law. It created a systematic method of coordinating federal disaster assistance to states and local governments.  The act also encouraged comprehensive preparedness planning.
  • 1993 – The “Blizzard of the Century” buried western Virginia in as much as three feet of snow.  On August 6, a historic F4 tornado, with an estimated wind speed of 210 mph, hit Petersburg/Colonial Heights. Eighteen tornadoes hit Virginia that day, killing four and injuring 259 people.

F$ Tornado
An F4 tornado tore through Southpark Walmart in Colonial Heights.

  • 1995 – The federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, which led to the development of the Virginia Terrorism Consequence Management Plan, resulting in the nation’s first terrorism awareness training.
  • 1999 – Virginia suffered through Tropical Storm Dennis and Hurricane Floyd, resulting in federal disaster declarations.
  • 2000 – The agency’s name was changed to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
  • Sept. 11, 2001 – Terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and intentionally flew it into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
    Pentagon 2001
    The west side of the Pentagon burned and partially collapsed after a Boeing 757 aircraft crashed into it in 2001.
  • 2001 – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was established, along with Homeland Security Grants Programs.
  • 2003 – Virginia’s most costly natural disaster, Hurricane Isabel, slammed into Virginia, causing 36 deaths and $1.9 billion in damage.  Nearly 2 million people were without power, the highest number on record.

Hurricane Isabel
Virginia homes and businesses suffered substantial damage as a result of Isabel in 2003.

  • 2004 – Tropical Storm Gaston produced heavy rainfall and flash flooding in Richmond.

Tropical Storm Gaston
Many people lost their cars to flash flooding in Shockoe Bottom along the James River in downtown Richmond in 2004.

  • 2005 – Virginia became accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. Virginia was reaccredited by EMAP in 2010 and 2015, making it one of only two states to maintain full accreditation.
  • 2006 – The $6.5 million state-of-the-art Virginia Emergency Operations Center opened in Chesterfield County.
  • 2008 – The Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response was launched, providing a GIS-supported common operating picture for emergency response.
  • Winter 2009-2010 – After eight mild winters, severe snowstorms nearly paralyzed the Commonwealth.

Severe Winter Storm
Several winter storms that brought deep snows affected most of the state in 2009 and 2010.

  • 2011 – Governor Bob McDonnell established the Virginia Disaster Relief Fund following an onslaught of killer tornadoes nearly every week in April.
  • August – September 2011 – A disaster trifecta, which consisted of a historic 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Mineral, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, killed 10 and caused an estimated $129 million in damage.

Mineral Earthquake
FEMA brought earthquake experts from the West Coast to help assess damage from Virginia’s second strongest earthquake, which occurred in 2011.

  • 2012 –  Late-season Hurricane Sandy brought significant flooding to the Virginia coast, heavy snow to higher elevation in the southwestern and western counties, and high winds and heavy rain to northern Virginia.
  • 2016 – The fourth  most powerful winter storm to impact the Northeast U.S. since 1950 dropped more than three feet of snow in Virginia in January, and 11 people lost their lives. Eight tornadoes hit the Commonwealth in February and claimed five lives.

EMAP accreditation

Anniversary logo

Be ready. Be willing to help.

Virginia Disaster Relief Fund