As President Nixon and his campaign team prepared for his reelection bid in the spring of 1972, a small tropical storm was winding its way north from the Yucatan Peninsula. By June 17, the storm had increased dramatically in intensity and speed, tearing its way through the Caribbean and the southeast quadrant of the Gulf of Mexico. As Hurricane Agnes made landfall on the Florida panhandle on June 19, expectations were high that it would soon dissipate as it was only classified as a category 1 hurricane and then merely a tropical depression as it made its way over Georgia. However, as it gained strength off the Atlantic coast of North Carolina and made its way to New York, NY, it combined with a tropical low to produce over a foot and a half of rain in some areas and extreme flooding from Virginia northward to New York, as well as in many regions of the Carolinas.
Hurricane Agnes could not have come at a worse time as it added to RN’s already overflowing platter. Just two weeks prior, Rapid City, South Dakota, experienced one of the deadliest floods in the history of the United States. In the predawn hours of June 10, heavy rains along a range known as the Black Hills produced over 1 billion metric tons of water, destroying hundreds of homes and damaging thousands more. Over 225 people were killed that night, including dozens of courageous servicemen. Over 3 thousand people were injured. Hurricane Agnes caused an additional 122 deaths along the eastern seaboard and was responsible for over $2 billion in damages.
President Nixon expressed his deepest sympathies for the victims of these natural disasters not only for the loss of life but also for the “destruction of property… loss of jobs, disruption of families, personal privation, and anxieties about the future.” On August 16, RN signed into law the Disaster Recovery Bill of 1972 which effectively decreased interest on government loans aimed at rebuilding devastated areas and allowed up to $5000 of principal loans to not be repaid. It also provided special assistance to disabled and retired persons, and made available loans to farmers and small businessmen in an effort to encourage them to rebuild rather than relocate.
Four days later, RN signed the largest single appropriation for a disaster relief in the nation’s history, totaling almost $1.6 billion. Nixon stated that “some $1.3 billion are for disaster loans to help the victims rebuild their homes, restore their farms, and reopen their businesses. Some $500 million is added to almost $300 million already available in my Disaster Relief Fund to rebuild and restore public facilities, to provide temporary housing, and for other authorized relief programs.” President Nixon was confident, however, that the shortened response and relief time of these disasters, coupled with the courageous and persevering spirit of the victims, would allow the affected areas to quickly rebuild until they surpassed even their previous grandeur.
Photo: Devastation of the Rapid City Flood in June 1972.